The Leftovers, an ambitious new HBO series adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel premiering Sunday night, opens with what is arguably its best scene. Three years ago, on Oct. 14, a frazzled young mother has just finished doing her laundry in a grimy laundromat, and now she’s buckling her whining infant into his car seat. That mission accomplished, she gets into the driver’s seat, chatting on her phone with someone at home, but then notices her baby has gone silent. No, wait. He’s just gone.
Panicking, she jumps out of the car and starts frantically calling the child’s name. Simultaneously, a few feet away in the same parking lot, a little boy begins screaming for his suddenly missing father, a grocery cart still in motion from where the dad had been pushing it a split second ago. In the distance, we see a serious car accident as one car, abruptly driverless, plows into another, badly injuring that driver.
Such eerie incidents are happening, not only here in rustic Mapleton, N.Y., but all around the globe, where mathematicians eventually will estimate that two percent of the world’s population has gone missing. Among those who were not spirited away, many of them surmise that the Rapture has occurred and they have been tried by heaven and found undeserving.
But is it? The more people look at who was taken, the less sense this “Sudden Departure” seems to make. Those who vanished on that Oct. 14 seemed to be a mystifyingly random collection. In addition to the righteous and heroic, that group also included known rapists, pedophiles, drug pushers, abusive parents and other heinous types. (In the only truly funny moment that occurs during the four episodes HBO provided for screening, we learn via a newscast in a bar that the Departed also included celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, Jennifer Lopez and Shaquille O’Neal, among others).
Their loved ones snatched away by a bizarre event that surpasses comprehension, the remaining Mapleton residents struggle to find some meaning in their loss. Some suffer mental breakdowns. Some commit suicide. Others, like wife and mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman, Private Practice), leave their families to join a weird new fellowship that calls itself the Guilty Remnant. Its members, most of them chainsmokers, dress entirely in white and never speak, not even when alone with each other. Inherently non-confrontational, they travel in pairs and stand mutely yet prominently in public places, or quietly stalk local citizens who have caught their eye. They are not very popular.
The Guilty Remnant’s apparent purpose is to make sure no one forgets that the Sudden Departure happened. But to what end? The group doesn’t seem to attach explicitly religious significance to the event, nor can they shed any light on what it means. Four episodes in, I’m still completely stumped.
At the heart of The Leftovers is the Garvey family. The father, Kevin (Justin Theroux), is the town’s stressed-out police chief who realizes he is sitting on a pressure cooker that could blow at any moment. That’s true at home, too. His wife is gone, so three years after the event, Kevin and his headstrong teenage daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), are just trying to pretend that the “old normal” still prevails. Meanwhile, Kevin’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has drifted into the orbit of a cult leader (Paterson Joseph), who calls himself Holy Wayne and offers to “hug the pain away” for his acolytes, especially if they are underage Asian girls.
I absolutely get that The Leftovers is tackling some very big, very complex questions about the nature of life, the meaning of death, man’s relationship to God and the universe, lots of the biggies. And I applaud co-creators Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost) for their courage and ambition. The huge ensemble — which also includes Ann Dowd (Michael Sheen’s mother in Showtime’s Masters of Sex), Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) and a beguiling theater-trained newcomer named Carrie Coon – turns in consistently strong work as well.
All that said, too much of The Leftovers is a real slog. Relentlessly somber even when it’s not aggressively depressing, the series just started to wear me down after awhile, and I’m not a guy who needs something to blow up on a regular basis to keep me entertained. I haven’t read Perrotta’s novel, but what may be fully engaging on the page too often feels inert and listless when we see it acted out. Case in point: the extended “conversations” between members of the Guilty Remnants, which force us to watch as one person scribbles down his “line” and shows it to the other person, who then takes his/her tablet and writes down the response and holds it up, etc., etc. If you think that doesn’t make for compelling television, well, you’d be right.
I watched all four of the episodes pretty much straight through, which is definitely not the way you want to approach such bleak material. On the other hand, it did make me feel immersed in the world of this story – because after four hours, I was ready to scream “Take me! Take me now!”