It happened a few years ago. Science couldn't explain it. The major religions weren't up to the task either. All anyone really knows is that something extraordinary and tragic took place. The disappearances, the search for answers — through it all, the world watched in stunned disbelief. And no one who experienced saw things the same way again.
Man, the finale of Lost sure was something, huh?
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To talk about The Leftovers, the new HBO drama based on co-creator Tom Perrotta's book of the same name, we need to talk about that other show about people vanishing under mysterious circumstances that began with an L. You know, the one that employed Damon Lindelof as co-creator and showrunner — if only to get the comparisons out of the way. Because if The Leftovers keeps up the way it started tonight, we won't need to compare the two ever again.
As the public face of the smash-hit ABC show he co-created with J.J. Abrams and co-ran with Carlton Cuse, Lindelof earned nerd/pop-culture godhead status. But the finale dismissed many of the series' most compelling storylines with a hand-wave of gloopy new-age mysticism — and turned Lindelof into Fandom Enemy No. 1 overnight. Lindelof and Cuse gamely participated in many events surrounding the finale of Breaking Bad (carefully crafted to be satisfying, perhaps to a fault), defending their work while offering their own experience as a cautionary tale. But the damage was such that people like Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin cite "pulling a Lost" as an example of what not to do.
The writer/showrunner has attempted to assuage some fears about The Leftovers, which features a central mystery even bigger than Lost's fantasy island, by saying it's not about the mystery at all. If you're up front about having no intention of providing "The Answers," the logic goes, no one will get pissed about sitting around waiting for them when they don't come. He's probably right. But the problem with his previous show's finale isn't that it didn't tell us enough about the Dharma Initiative or any of the other science-fantasy elements that message boards were analyzing to death. (As Lindelof and Cuse were known to say, do you like Star Wars more now that you know about the midichlorians?) The real problem with that final episode was that its dorm-room bullshit-session spiritual-not-religious vision of the supernatural was a) banal and boring, and b) executed at the expense of so much of the character-based drama that had come before. Put it all together and it's not a promising resumé for a show about the Rapture (or at least something Rapture-esque). Wasn't this a pleasant surprise?
Okay, "pleasant" is probably not the right word, given the grim nature of the proceedings. We're talking about a show that began with a solid two minutes of a baby scream-crying, ending only when the baby vanishes into thin air, at which point his mother picks up where he left off. One scene later, we watch a man shoot a dog to death on-screen. Thirty years ago, a shot like that was the stuff of gross-out fare like The Toxic Avenger; now it helps launch a likely Emmy contender and no one blinks.
No, The Leftovers is not easy viewing. But nor is it callous or thoughtless in how it ladles out the misery, or in how it asks you to view the misanthropes. Unlike so many of its recent prestige-TV competitors, the story is not about its protagonists' greed, but their grieving. Shot with handheld-camera immediacy and enlivened by visual details that are creepy, moving, even darkly funny – sometimes all at once – the show keeps its focus on those who feel pain, not those who cause it, and is much the better for it.
Set three years after the sudden, unexplained disappearance of two percent of the world's population on October 14 – a date that lives in 9/11-style infamy in the show's just-slightly-science-fictional America – the pilot further distinguishes itself by avoiding the usual themes of post-apocalyptic fiction. The society that the New York suburb of Mapleton represents has not disintegrated: school's in session, reality-TV dating shows are still a hot topic of conversation, people sing along to oldies on the radio. This, it seems, is exactly what's making everyone so miserable. When you've lost so much and the world doesn't end, it's almost insulting to be forced to go on.
So the characters attempt to assign meaning to the meaningless in many different ways, though all of them are equally ineffective. Mayor Lucy Warburton plows ahead with plans for a "Heroes Day" memorial service, even though she knows the word "hero" is laughably devalued currency. She's also painfully aware that the commemorative sculpture the town commissioned – of an infant flying backwards out of its mother's arms like it's getting sucked up by Spaceball One in Mega-Maid mode – is a black-comedy monstrosity. Chief Kevin Garvey drugs himself to sleep every night, apparently to stave off hallucinations involving stags (the official mascot of Quality TV Drama), and pours his little remaining energy into sparring with the mayor and ineffectually parenting his kids. His wife, Laurie, didn't disappear at all — she abandoned the family to join a white-pajama cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose chainsmoking, collective vow of silence, and penchant for stalking survivors read like a child's attempt to process the catastrophe. A Senator shouts at a blue-ribbon panel, his demands for Answers making him sound for all the world like a Twitter troll hounding Lindelof about Lost.
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Many of these threads converge at the knowingly cornball Heroes Day ceremony, when an equally ham-fisted protest march by the Guilty Remnant devolves into a bloody brawl between cultists, townspeople, and Chief Garvey's police force. Before long it's a slow-motin morass of flailing, shouting bodies, rival sides pounding each other into the dirt, peace officers swinging batons indiscriminately. Few scenes in film or television have captured this country's embittered decade-plus of dysfunctional lashing-out more accurately or evocatively.
Which is why it's worth putting up with your reservations about Lindelof, or overcoming your skepticism about the show's almost parodic Angry White Man Equals Great Drama ad campaign, or overlooking a handful of inert scenes (pop culture's bajilionth sleazy, joyless teen sex party; a Liv Tyler storyline that's designed to pay off way down the line). The Leftovers serves up the freshest drama pilot in recent memory, treating troubling subject matter with intelligence and empathy. That's one mystery solved, anyway.