Pop culture’s moving target Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta are the brains behind The Leftovers (adapting Perrotta’s novel of the same name) and the concept is simple: an event similar to the Rapture occurs and 140 million people disappear around the world. The series focuses on the population of a small American town who got left behind (see what they did there).
Lindelof and Perrotta don’t abuse the Biblical R-word too much in Pilot and it helps to establish ambiguity around what happened. The show subscribes to multiple belief systems to try to come to terms with the event; one faith doesn’t define the outcome. The opening scene is a slice of life on the day of the event that focuses on a mother whose baby disappears. Director Peter Berg crafts a gut wrenching sequence as the mother screams in terror and the camera pulls back to reveal lost children calling out for their parents and stray cars smashing into each other. The setup is superb and it doesn’t pledge to the special effects extravaganza expected from a series with a supernatural concept.
There’s no time to settle into the immediate effects of the mass disappearance because there’s a time jump to the three-year anniversary of ‘The Sudden Departure’. From here the supreme juggling act begins between world building and introducing the residents of Mapleton, New York. Television news channels give coverage to a government inquiry into ‘The Sudden Departure’ where scientists confess they have no idea where two per cent of the world’s population went. Media commentators debate the event as an act of God while another news network remembers the celebrities that disappeared (look out for an amazing Gary Busey joke). The building blocks of the show’s environment are expertly laid and the aesthetics are wonderfully detailed with information.
Meeting the characters at the three year mark creates a fascinating dynamic because everyone is ready to crack. Lindelof and Perrotta are dealing with the emotional implications of living in the fallout of a ‘disaster’ and there’s a morose cloud hanging over each character that screams ‘why me?’ There are clever little clues as to why certain characters may have been left behind with jarring flashbacks of fleeting misdemeanours that are lightning bolts of guilt.
The Garvey family are the primary starting point for the series with the Chief of Police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) trying to wrangle his teenage daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), and reconnect with his son, Tom (Chris Zylka) and wife, Laurie (Amy Brennemen), who have both fled to different cults. Tom is in the company of a spiritual guru with armed guards who claims to be able to absolve people of their ‘burden’ and receive messages from a mysterious force. Laurie belongs to a group called ‘The Guilty Remnant’ (GR) that live in large group homes, take a vow of silence, and only wear white. Throughout the episode the GR are shown to be stalking people as if to remind them of the reason why they got left behind; the perfect type of creepy for this show. Jill is a little ‘meh’ about the whole experience and she mopes through school, sports and sexually relaxed parties where teens play spin the iPhone with an app that tells them to ‘hug’, ‘fuck’ and ‘choke’.
There are lots of character arcs flying around in the debut episode of The Leftovers and they’re strung together nicely by Lindelof and Perrotta but the primary plot focuses on Chief Garvey tracking down a man shooting dogs in Mapleton, keeping the peace at a memorial event called ‘Heroes Day’ and having strange encounters with a deer that’s wandering around down.
The memorial day goes terribly wrong when the GR show up holding signs that spell out ‘stop wasting your breath’ and the Mapletonians start brawling with the pacifist cult (led by the always awesome Ann Dowd). Chief Garvey seems to be continually failing at his responsibilities as a police officer and a family man. Threroux does a really great job of portraying a man that’s only just barely keeping it together and the entire cast do a fantastic job of depicting different levels of mourning.
Aside from the cults and melancholic reflections on life after ‘The Sudden Departure’, the final moments of Pilot is where it gets a little freaky. Chief Garvey finally tracks down the canine killer after the deer that has stalked him for most of the episode is mauled by a pack of dogs. The assassin tells Chief Garvey that the dogs are no longer ‘their dogs’ and encourages the policeman to make use of his gun. Chief Garvey pulls out his pistol to help the dog vigilante finish the job. This was an interesting way to end the episode with hints that nature (or some other supernatural entity) has decided to reclaim the Earth after three years. Peace time is over. I can’t wait to see what carnage develops in this space.
When it comes to bleak dramas on cable television The Leftovers may be the one that breaks me but I am completely fascinated with the theological and existential ideas displayed in Pilot. It reminded me a lot of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men as a study of a world wrapped in communal grief. The mystical element of the Rapture isn’t overplayed and I’m looking forward to seeing how judgement is passed on these characters or if humanity will just tear itself apart. I just hope Lindelof knows how to end this one.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW