Pilot Review: HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS Gets Off To a Promising (If Somewhat Glum) Start

Some thoughts on novelist Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof's dark, mysterious new series.

The Leftovers comes to us from author Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel the series is based on), LOST co-creator (and perennial internet punching-bag) Damon Lindelof and director Peter Berg (Battleship, never forget). The show's season premiere aired last night, and - having given the episode a few whirls - I believe I'm ready to make a few snap judgments about HBO's latest original series. Let's start with a summation: I liked it!

In case you missed the trailers, here's the setup: three years ago, an inexplicable event caused 2% of the Earth's population (roughly 140 million people) to vanish without a trace. The bulk of the series is set in the fictional New York hamlet of Mapleton, where a sprawling cast of characters deal with the fallout from that mysterious event. Some continue to mourn the 200-or-so people that disappeared from town that day, while others seem locked into the unfathomable anger that followed in the wake of their loss; some seem content to shrug the whole thing off and get back to work, while others have devoted their lives to "reminding" (in a way that feels a lot like "quietly condemning") the remaining 98% of Mapleton's population about the experience. The way these various camps bounce off one another seems like it'll drive the overall story of The Leftovers, while various subplots revolving around the lives of individual characters (some of whom experience brief flashbacks to their lives, pre-mysterious event) will drive the week-to-week ins and outs of the show.

If you're thinking, "Huh, that sounds a little like LOST," well, you're not wrong. The two series share a number of surface similarities, actually (the morally troubled lead character with perma-stubble, the fantastic world-building details that fill out each scene, the spiritual character who may or may not have supernatural powers), but the tone of The Leftovers - in its performances and its script - feels completely unlike Lindelof's last foray into serialized drama. It's missing the levity of that show, its sense of adventure. On the one hand, that's probably a smart move, as the LOST well was poisoned long ago and comparisons between the two would almost certainly not be the sort Lindelof, Perrotta and HBO want people making.

On the other hand, it was hard not to watch this first episode and come away feeling that the show might be a little too glum for its own good. This is another snap judgment, of course - there's not telling what tone future episodes might bring to The Leftovers' mix - but...guess we'll have to wait and see. There were brief glimmers of satire in the premiere (see also: the Gary Busey moment, the debate over whether or not the people who disappeared should really be called "heroes"), enough so that I'm not terribly concerned about The Leftovers turning into a weekly dose of grief porn. I'm just saying I might enjoy seeing a bit more of that in future episodes.

(Side Note: LOST wasn't the only pop-cultural behemoth to leave its fingerprints on The Leftovers' premiere: I also caught a slight whiff of Jaws, of all things, in this opener. The way a Mapleton parade sequence was shot and framed felt a little like Spielberg's Amity, as did the Chief of Police being written off as a badge-wearing Chicken Little by the town's somewhat belligerent Mayor. I'm not sure there's anything more to these allusions, but it was interesting seeing them pop up in a genre project that doesn't immediately seem like it'd be a candidate for them.)

Here's another snap judgment: I really like the cast they've assembled here. Justin Theroux turns in a compelling performance (even if that performance is, as fellow BAD writer Britt Hayes commented earlier, "a little shouty") as Kevin Garvey, Mapleton's Chief of Police, and I liked the brief glimpse we got of Chris Eccleston as a preacher who's been reduced to digging up dirt on disappearees in order to prove that what happened was not, in fact, the Biblical Rapture. I was also impressed by Margaret Qualley as Kevin's teenage daughter, and Amy Brenneman's wordless performance as Laurie, a member of the newly-formed cult known as the Guilty Remnant.

Oh, yes, that - the Guilty Remnant. These are the folks who've taken it upon themselves to sit in silent judgment of the 98% who didn't make the cut on "Disappearance Day" (D-Day, wokka-wokka-wokka?), and they're a pretty interesting crew. Dressed all in white, chain-smoking and willingly mute, they're guaranteed to fuel what I imagine will be a lot of friction between the show's various characters. Brenneman, for instance, is Kevin's former wife, and I'm curious to find out what would've caused her to leave her family and friends behind to shack up with this congregation of judge-y mammajammas. And what's the Guilty Remnant's end-game, anyway? It's way too early to start tossing theories around, obviously, but I'm betting that hasn't stopped you guys from forming a few of your own already. I know I have.

Other things I'd like to note:

*** This episode confirmed what I've been fearing: Hollywood is now breeding younger leading men who look like a perfect genetic cross between Matt Damon and Jesse Plemmons. What is the industry planning to do with all these hot, young, borderline-identical men? And should we be concerned?

*** Having not read Perrotta's novel, I can't say for certain whether the sheer amount of profanity in the show is something he's brought to the table...or if it's something Lindelof's injecting into the script (or whether they both love the word "fuck"!), but man did it feel like The Leftovers was leaning heavy on the "Fuck" button. I know it's pay cable, and lord knows I'm not adverse to a little salty language, but...I mean, fuck, guys. Fuck.

*** I like the series' approach to flashbacks thus far: just a few seconds long, just enough time to make a point while filling in character details for whoever's having them. Sometimes they're touching (and/or troubling, as when we saw the lovers leaping to their deaths from a tall building on a college campus), and sometimes...well, put it this way: the cutaway to Kevin's naked father rampaging through a suburban yard felt like a cross between a LOST flashback and a Family Guy cutaway. Not sure if the laughter that provoked in my household was intentional, but it was appreciated.

What did you guys think, though? Onboard with what Lindelof, Perotta and Berg turned in here? Weren't feeling it? Where do you wanna see this go? Sound off in the comments section below. If there's interest, we'll come back and talk about this one each week, as we've done previously with True Detective, Enlisted and Game of Thrones.

Comments