The Apocalypse will be televised: HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ is a dark, slow burn


[A version of this review appears in an upcoming edition of the Rutland Reader.]

On my more cynical days, I kind of hope the Rapture is real, and that it will happen in my lifetime. I imagine a world free of subjective morality, overzealous bible thumpers, and obnoxious culture warriors. Saturday night debauchery would bleed into Sunday brunch without a twinge of guilt. Blood Mary, full of vodka, hallowed be thy name.

Such is not the world presented in the new post-apocalyptic (mid-apocalyptic?) drama The Leftovers, which premiered on HBO June 29. Here, the post-rapture world is a bleak, lonely, and hopeless place. The series is based on the popular 2011 novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, and is co-produced by Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost). Peter Berg, of Friday Night Lights fame, even shows up to direct the first two episodes.

Despite what you may think of Lindelof — which largely depends on how you felt about Lost’s final season — the guy knows his way around spooky, supernatural mysteries and troubled, broken characters. And The Leftovers has both in spades.

Set primarily in the smallish city of Mapleton, N.Y., the show picks up at the three-year anniversary of the day two percent of the world’s population vanished into thin air. Justin Theroux plays the series’ requisite tall, dark and brooding protagonist Kevin Garvey, Mapleton’s chief of police around whose family most of the action is centered, at least for now.

Margaret Qualley plays Garvey’s teenage daughter Jill, a brainy bad girl who seems to have inherited her father’s substance abuse and anger issues.

On the other side of the family tree is mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who has fallen in with the local chapter of the Guilty Remnant, a (thus far) vaguely defined cult of mute nihilists dressed in white whose main purpose seems to be creeping people out and trolling community events.

College-aged son Tom (Chris Zylka) has also bailed on the family, heading west and falling in with an enigmatic, huggy cult leader named Holy Wayne.

If I’m not saying much about the characters, it’s because so far there’s not much to say. At only two episodes in, they are still being fleshed out so it’s hard to get a handle on them. However, it’s in the expanding world of secondary characters — Kevin’s institutionalized father, the dog-hunting man in the black truck, and the traumatized mother who lost her whole family — where I see the show’s more intriguing plotlines.

The pilot is generally solid and sets a lot of these plots spinning out, teasing viewers about how they will eventually intersect. The second episode is similarly spread out as it continues to establish the show’s universe. It will be interesting to see if Lindelof will start to zoom in on specific characters in subsequent episodes similar to the way Lost did. Narratively, it feels like the right way to go, but with such a large cast and HBO’s typically small episode order, it seems unlikely that we will get too much of that.

At the heart of The Leftovers remains the central mystery of the rapture event. While it’s speculated by some characters to have been the biblical Rapture, the show wisely does not explicitly affirm this. Without having read the book, I don’t know how or if it is ever revealed, but I kind of hope it’s not. The history of television is riddled with sci-fi dramas that started out strong but got mired in attempting to explain their core mysteries in ways that only proved disappointing (The X-Files), over-complicated (The 4400), or just plain dumb (FlashForward).

If Lindelof has learned anything from Lost — and from those angry, petty fans, who, four years after the finale, still light up his Twitter feed — it’s that sometimes the mystery is better than the reveal. In four seasons, The Walking Dead has never explained what caused the zombie virus. It’s a mystery the show (and the comic) seems disinterested in answering. That series may not be a paradigm of great storytelling, but it’s one narrative choice they got right.

And those who read Perrotta’s book, be forewarned: there are some serious differences between the book and show. However, as recent adaptations like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have demonstrated, these types of variations can work out for the best — especially when the author is kept in the loop creatively, as is the case with all these shows. Granting some creative latitude can make for interesting developments, and unexpected but equally satisfying twists. For example, The Walking Dead character Daryl Dixon — one of the show’s most popular and best-written characters — has never appeared in the comics on which the series is based.

There is a lot of potential in The Leftovers. The cast looks up to the task, and the creative team is turning out engaging, moody scripts that seem to be taking a slow-burn approach that will hopefully pay off by midseason. Indeed, all signs indicate some sort of impending conflict. Holy Wayne cryptically tells Tom as much. And Kevin’s mysterious truck-driving, dog-hunting friend seems be filling a similar role in preparing Kevin for what comes next.

But after watching the first two episodes, I found myself wondering everyone’s sense of humor was raptured, too. To be fair, this show is not a comedy, but some levity would help break up the show’s relentless onslaught of despair, anger, and loss. I’m accustomed to TV shows that are hard to watch — Breaking Bad and The Wire are among my favorites — but even they knew how to balance heavy storytelling with humor.

The only bit of apparent comic relief comes from the Prius-driving twin brothers Adam and Scott (Max and Charlie Carver), who play Jill’s easygoing, naïve classmates. But their weird optimism tracks more like the lead up to some kind of psychotic break. I’m betting these guys will be wearing people’s skin by episode five.

And it’s that kind of weirdness the show also desperately needs. OK, maybe not skin suits exactly, but something strange enough to keep people gasping and talking from week to week. So far, it’s off to a good start. But if The Leftovers is going to hang with the current crop of premium dramas, it needs to fully embrace just how unsettling its universe is while also having some fun with what inhabiting it would be like.