In the beginning, at least, The Leftovers sounds familiar. The clamorous white noise of modern living hangs in the air, keeping time for the passage of an ordinary autumn day: a crying infant, telephone conversations, the tumbling dryers of a suburban Laundromat. Indeed, what will eventually mark October 14th as the dividing line between “before” and “after” is a brief and surprising silence, the pause that precedes the uproar of alarms, screams, and collisions accompanying the “Sudden Departure.” Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta from the latter’s eponymous novel, the series imagines a world in which two percent of humankind has vanished, but the premiere evinces admirably little interest in an explanation. The questions The Leftovers poses are rather more prosaic. What does it mean to be awakened not by sound, but by its absence? Why do we wait until what we hold dear is gone to acknowledge what it meant to us in the first place? Where do our regrets go when “before” becomes “after”?
Three years after the mass disappearance, as the town of Mapleton prepares to unveil a frightful bronze statue commemorating the lost (it’s as though they commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to depict the Rapture), Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and the other surviving citizens bear up or break down under the strain. The Leftovers in some sense pitches itself as an apocalyptic fiction without an apocalypse, and the premiere suggests an appropriately wide range of responses to the events of October 14th, from resignation, alcoholism, and cult formation to bereavement, punishment, and denial. Even at 72 minutes, though, this attempt to survey an entire society’s worth of trauma leaves the pilot feeling unwieldy and overstuffed, as discordant as the prologue’s din.
What prevents The Leftovers from succumbing to the distractions of its unsatisfying debut are the compelling mysteries Lindelof and Perrotta dangle before us. This tacit promise of future payoffs should be accepted with caution (Lindelof piloted Lost straight into the ground, after all), but I nonetheless found myself trying to solve the episode’s innumerable puzzles with the extant scraps of evidence.
What is Guilty Remnant, the silent, white-clad cult of “Watchers” operating out of a Mapleton McMansion? “WE ARE LIVING REMINDERS,” the bathroom wall warns Kevin’s estranged wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), but the details of that remembrance remain largely unexplained. The local chapter, led by a tough broad named Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), doesn’t appear to be religious, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s clear, however, that members of Guilty Remnant disapprove of the effort to gloss October 14th as “Heroes Day,” to smooth the rough edges of the Sudden Departure with the commemorative spectacle of parades, memorials, and national days of mourning: “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH,” their signs protest during the third anniversary event, condemning the rote “Gone but Not Forgotten” language of the assembled crowd as sorely inadequate.
Guilty Remnant’s critique of Mapleton’s collective grief is the richest and riskiest thematic vein running through the pilot, and in the post-9/11 era it assumes a particularly striking relevance. Despite the indications of profound disagreement as to how October 14th should be remembered, each of the subcultures featured in The Leftovers forcefully asserts the importance of memory in explaining the disappearance of millions, or at least in accepting the Sudden Departure’s inexplicability. Take Wayne (Paterson Joseph), the powerful, enigmatic Brit who counts a congressman among his acolytes. As Wayne tells Kevin’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka), a minor functionary in his secretive organization, the “bad shit” on the horizon is designed to exact retribution for the ease and speed with which society moved on from October 14th, and by extension from Wayne’s own vanished son. Against the anodyne safety of Heroes Day, reducing the Sudden Departure to the annual reading of a list of names, Wayne’s plan is bibilical in scope. “Therefore watch, and remember,” he says, quoting Acts 20:31, “that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”
Admittedly, allusions to the New Testament and German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein strain for intellectual depths The Leftovers has yet to earn. Paul’s counsel to the disciples, from the aforementioned chapter of the Book of Acts, isn’t a call to war, but a caution that “grievous wolves” from the ranks of the unfaithful will tempt the flock after his departure. Whether it’s Wayne’s misinterpretation or Lindelof and Perrotta’s, this kind of showy erudition, as True Detective recently proved, can undermine an otherwise deft drama. Mythologies provide the sheen of seriousness, but left unfulfilled such “clues” become frustrating dead-ends.
Indeed, the premiere’s nervous toggling between the high-minded and the grimly quotidian mostly seems to be a way for The Leftovers to hedge its bets. Are Kevin and Tom’s tattooed torsos hieroglyphs of unhappiness, or just slabs of beefcake for our perusal? Is the spinning cell phone at the house party Kevin’s daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), attends, with its commands of “Fuck,” “Burn,” and “Choke,” an indication of psychological extremes, or simply an affectation of rebellious adolescents? Does Meg (Liv Tyler) join Guilty Remnant to escape her impending marriage—“The wedding is picking fucking centerpieces,” she says flatly—or will we find that she’s experiencing more than cold feet? Are the jarring flashbacks of brutal fights, suicides, and backyard chases that followed the Sudden Departure meant to foreshadow future shifts in time, or are they cheap jolts meant to break up the pilot’s crude plot dump?
Despite my trepidation, the noisy glimpse of a fallen world proffered in the series premiere is enough to create a strong desire to see these questions answered. At minimum, there’s no jeopardy of Lindelof and Perrotta running out of grist for the mill anytime soon. I only hope subsequent entries in the series reduce the heat from rolling boil to slow burn, that The Leftovers hews closely to its more prosaic questions. How did the members of a seemingly homogenous American suburb arrive at such disparate understandings of what they had, what they lost, and where to put their regret? Of the mythologies themselves, perhaps the less said the better. As Wittgenstein claimed, we learn in an overheard snippet of congressional testimony midway through the episode, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”
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