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The Awe-Inspiring Bleakness of HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’

Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers shouldn’t make a good television show. An author who spends most of his time exploring the darkest parts of suburbia, Perrotta writes books that seem to lend themselves better to film adaptations such as Election or Little Children. The first time I read The Leftovers, I thought it would make a fantastic movie. The second time I read it, earlier this week in preparation for Sunday’s premiere, I wondered how the hell this mysterious narrative was going to work as a weekly drama. Based on its first few episodes, The Leftovers is bleak and depressing. It’s a haunting and heartsick show, and one that’s full of frustration and longing. Its debut episodes are also the most promising I’ve seen this year, and I won’t be surprised if it becomes one of the best series of 2014.

The Leftovers, co-created by Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (best known, loved, and hated for Lost), is about a Rapture-like event. On October 14, approximately 140 million people (two percent of the world) disappeared into thin air. This is an important number: It’s not so overwhelmingly large that society ceases to exist or function, but it’s large enough that everyone feels the effects and has lost someone they knew, whether it’s a child or a friend-of-a-friend or a celebrity (the Pope and Gary Busey are among the departed). It’s large enough that “Where were you?” is the way the town conducts small talk, in the way that people recall their JFK or 9/11 stories. It’s similar to the Rapture — here one second, gone the next with no explanation — but those who are departed seem too random. Devout Catholics are departed, but so are murderers and adulterers. The inexplicable event comes to be referred to as the “Sudden Departure.”

In the larger context, society is still intact. The Leftovers isn’t about a a band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic universe but about the everyday people who are trying to deal with grief, to find an explanation, to start over, or to just live. But how do you keep your family together when they are literally running away from you? And how do you keep yourself together when the people you loved the most disappeared and no one can explain why?

Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is a wreck who struggles to raise his increasingly distant daughter, Jill (Margaret Garvey), and keep the town intact while trying not to lose his mind. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), was not one of the departed; instead, she chose to leave, which is much worse, and joined the cult-like group the Guilty Remnant. The Guilty Remnant wear all white, chain-smoke cigarettes, and silently follow people around the town simply watching them. They have taken a vow of silence, and the scenes within the G.R. compound are the eeriest: the inhaling of cigarettes, the angry scribbling on paper, and the creaking of chairs are all deeply unsettling. Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) is gone too, seduced by the charms of a different cult led by a man with a taste for underage women.

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There are terrible people within The Leftovers, but there isn’t an overarching enemy. It’s not a cut-and-dry drama, soaked in shocking scenes and big acts of violence (though there are plenty); it’s about exploring grief through all the different ways everyone deals with the Sudden Departure. The teenagers in Mapleton have chosen hedonism and nihilism, going to drunken parties where they play an updated version of Spin the Bottle. They burn, choke, and fuck each other, but it’s more of a necessary routine than a sexy party game.

“I’m always fucking worried,” Kevin says at one point in the pilot, and I’m sure everyone else in the town would echo his statements. No one knows what happened — the book doesn’t ever attempt to explain the Sudden Departure, though it seems like Lindelof might (and I’m fucking worried about that) — or whether it will happen again, this time to them. There is quiet rage in everyone but nowhere to put it, so people take it out on kitchen appliances, framed photos, and steering wheels. Three years later, everyone’s trying to get on with their lives, but the pain and confusion is still too much. At the bar, Kevin raises his beer to a woman and says, “We’re still here.” It’s meant to be a toast, a celebration that they are still on earth and getting by, but it’s a shaky statement, as if Kevin is unsure if he even exists.

The Leftovers is a natural fit for Damon Lindelof, who wrestled with these existential questions, science vs. religion, and unexplainable supernatural events in Lost. His touch is all over the The Leftovers — particularly with the stylized and jarring flashbacks, the overall confusion, and the surrealism of certain scenes — and it definitely works. It’s a bit reminiscent of the earlier Lost seasons, the ones that we all watched in awe, though this forgoes the lighter moments for nonstop despair. Hurley wouldn’t fit in The Leftovers‘ world, but I wouldn’t want him to. This is an odd thing to say, but the bleakness is what I like most about The Leftovers. It is unrelenting but necessary. It’s the only way to tell this story. In the much-hated finale of Lost, Lindelof engulfed his characters in light, but The Leftovers proves that Lindelof is at his best when he surrounds everything in darkness.

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