In the Golden Age of television, there are the celebrity showrunners — the executive producer/creator of a series that sometimes becomes as visible to the mainstream as its actors. Damon Lindelof, who co-created and ran Lost is a celebrity showrunner; he’s also one of the most controversial. The several-year break between the end of Lost and the beginning of The Leftovers, while financially successful with Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, has only made him a more polarizing figure. Lindelof is particularly infamous for his propensity to raise questions and plot points only to leave them dangling. HBO's The Leftovers, Lindelof’s jump into premium cable, almost seems like an answer to these critics. Almost.

The Leftovers picks up in a small New York suburb three years after The Sudden Departure, when 2% of the world’s population vanished into thin air from one moment to the next. In the pilot, the town has come together to mark the anniversary of The Sudden Departure. Coming out of the Parade of Heroes (named so for the disappeared) we meet Matt Jamison, a former reverend who is upset at God for not taking him, believing that he was overlooked during the rapture. Jamison is played as unhinged, sad and fanatical by Christopher Eccleston. He runs his own little press that investigates the background of the missing, revealing that a portion were lousy; child-beaters, alcoholics, degenerates, etc. This is one of the show’s best moves. As a people we tend to deify those lost to us, cluster them into groups of great and beloved people; sometimes, however, those people weren’t so great. Sometimes they were just awful people. Noting this is important for the world building aspect of the Leftovers; it makes their entire universe a bit more plausible and three-dimensional.

Added to this are little things that also build the world of The Leftovers. Teenagers are even more brash and carefree with the knowledge that you could disappear at any moment these days. Everything associated with teens — promiscuous sex, drug experimentation, a sense of invincibility — have all been ratcheted up to the nth degree; they’re more in line with the youth in Huxley’s Brave New World or a Bret Easton Ellis novel. At school, no one stands for the Pledge of Allegiance anymore. Nearly everyone takes part in the Morning Prayer, however – even the teacher. People are directionless, just trying to figure out how to life, often resorting to ridiculous acts.


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The cults depicted in The Leftovers are a particularly ugly little turn of events. The Holy Wayne group is comprised of a charismatic ex-con (Paterson Joseph) who can relieve people of their pain through his touch; he’s also a pedophile. Joseph is the standout of the actors, with an ethereal menace that simmers beneath his hollow eyes. The other cult, The Guilty Remnant, are clearly based on Heaven’s Gate, but tend to be as obnoxious as the devout Jehovah’s Witness ringing your bell at 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday. The GRs wear white, refuse to speak, and stalk people to grow their number. They’re also tedious to watch, largely due to their silent nature. Whenever any of them are onscreen, the momentum dies as the characters and the audience wait while they scrawl little notes on a paper and show it to us. That sort of thing may work in prose but in a visual medium becomes quite dull, quite fast. What’s also strange is that the police do nothing about them. Yes, they are non-violent and protected under Freedom of Speech and whatnot, but considering they purposely and openly stalk regular citizens one would assume those members would be easily prosecuted for stalking, or loitering at the very least.

If anything, a change to the source material would have worked here. It would be easier on the audience if the GRs took a vow of silence amongst everyone but each other; it would certainly create some greater tensions between them and the “non-members.” Also, they might take a page from Penny Dreadful and devote an episode to flashback so we can see who some of the GRs were before The Sudden Departure and what led to the formation and popularity of the group. Context, often, is key.

Rounding out the cast is Justin Theroux, the police chief who even manages to eat angrily, and Carrie Coon who plays Nora Durst, whose entire family — husband, two very young children — disappeared that day three years ago. Now she’s this weird celebrity in town. Everyone knows her and they’re all overly kind. She pushes a full cup of coffee from the counter on purpose; the staff at the coffee house apologizes to her. She carries a .38 in her purse. She’s a walking time bomb. But then, everyone else is also. That’s one of the problems.

The series is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name; Perrotta serves as an executive producer alongside Lindelof. What’s notable about this this series, compared to Lindelof’s previous show, is that the original germ of the idea isn’t his; he’s partly adapting and part riffing. The Leftovers is particularly slow and elegiac, keeping in tone with the novel and its story threads to the point of bleakness. While it’s largely appropriate given the plot, it can also make for a rough viewing. The Leftovers carefully places a joke or two from time to time. We’re made to laugh at some of the famous names that disappeared without a trace; the twins Adam and Scott (Max and Charlie Carver) are meant to be these uplifting characters with a light sense of humor, but are rather creepy considering how often they speak in unison. Punching up the humor more would likely do the series a disservice, as it might trivialize the character’s feelings, as well as the disturbing nature of what’s happened. It’s a tight rope act they’re performing here, and they haven’t fallen yet.

The Leftovers make use of dreams, therapy sessions, and quiet metaphor that vary between being meaningful and pretentious. The series is satisfied with itself, perhaps overly so. While there is a confidence to the series that makes it familiar — we’ve all dealt with loss at some point — at times it appears to be showing off, telling us how clever it is. It’s undermined also by the flagrant profanity. When a network TV writer manages to get a series on a Premium channel they sometimes go a little crazy with the freedom. Lindelof and co. know that swearing is useful as a punch or an exclamation point, but when overused as they are here, the words tend to lose their efficacy and watching every single character swear up and down in nearly every scene, it tends to resemble parody than drama.

Sustainability in the long term is something every show has difficult with — serialized shows specifically. How long can you spin things off and divert into tangents before the original story is lost or the gimmick is worn out? The Sopranos had its peaks and valleys, and Dexter stopped being engaging at the halfway point. Eventually, in a series like The Leftovers, whose grief is nearly visible in frame, that monopolizing sadness could be what kills the show. At some point the audience will change the channel because depression can become boring.

Lindelof has stated he doesn’t have any interest in answering questions — a style he uses as an excuse to cover up drafty scripts and plot holes. The series he’s developed based on the book doesn’t answer the questions, but it didn’t really explore them either. At the end of second episode of the series, however, we’re given the hint of a central mythology being built, and that’s where things can get murky. Lindelof does love a good mystery, something to play around with and tease over several years. In an interview available on HBO-Go, star Justin Theroux said, “Rightly or wrongly [Damon Lindelof] isn’t concerned with why or how but just the people left behind.”

The Leftovers, two episodes in, has already proven as divisive as anything else with the Lindelof name. The question is now to the audience if they’re willing to accept a show with a conceit that will never be explained and at least one mystery with no payoff.


Catch up on The Leftovers with our recaps:

> 'The Leftovers' Recap: Kevin's Sanity Is Questioned In 'Penguin One, Us Zero'

> 'The Leftovers' Premiere Recap: Town Reels 3 Years After A Rapture; Justin Theroux Stars

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