Drab and monotonous, The Leftovers is another stultifying example of pop culture’s determination to elevate potentially serviceable pulp to the realm of capital-A art. Based on co-creator Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, the series follows a suburban community in the wake of a mass disappearance that claims something like two percent of the world’s population. With apparently no rhyme or reason, three years before the show’s present timeline, people simply vanished in a mystery that some claim signifies the Rapture. Cults immediately spring up in response, most predominantly and alarmingly the Guilty Remnant, whose followers swear a vow of silence and, oddly, a commitment to smoking, while stalking random townspeople so as to recruit more volunteers in their attempt to block a massive return to social status quo following the disappearances. On that aim, the GR appears to be successful: Guided by local chapter leader Patti Levin (Ann Dowd) and dressed in all-white clothes that are occasionally suggestive of the Ku Klux Klan, they advertently provoke fights under the maddeningly self-righteous guise of pacifism.
Two other troubled flim-flam artists reside on the show’s periphery: Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph, the most commanding actor in the cast), a compound leader who appears to operate under a messiah context in order to score a harem of underage Asian girls, and Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a preacher who routinely gets his ass handed to him in his desperate attempts to reveal the secret sins of the disappeared. The influences these blossoming cults wield over their society are dramatized through the everyday prisms of the middle-class Garvey family. Kevin (Justin Theroux) is the chief of police who’s drawn into a conflict of interest with the Guilty Remnant, and his son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has dropped out of college to join up with Wayne, becoming a bodyguard to one of the man’s kept girls. Meanwhile, Kevin’s daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), continues to navigate the traditional indignities of high school life with her obligatorily sexy-outrageous bestie, Aimee (Emily Meade), who appears to have a thing for Kevin.
There are occasionally witty touches, such as the snatches of TV programs that reveal Congress to be as ineffective in matters pertaining to the Rapture as they reliably are in regard to every other subject. But there are preciously few small or casually telling details that invite us into the personal dimensions of the lives that are being disrupted, which is a problem for a series about the evolving scope of socialized life. Perrotta and co-creator Damon Lindelof predictably foreground the novel’s genre elements, dialing up familiarly apocalyptic visions, and at the expense of the grace notes that often abound in the author’s work. Perrotta lured you into the book’s high concept with his evocative ear and eye for middle-class detail. For that, Kevin’s emotional openness in the midst of absurd and baffling calamity was particularly funny and poignant. But the series pounds you over the head with symbols and heightened, alienated portent. A family has a dinner that’s bathed in expressionistic noir shadows, teenagers go to a party that resembles an underground S&M club, and so forth.
Some of the bolder horror-movie devices admittedly hint at the development of a richer series. A F.B.I. raid on Wayne’s compound, for example, is edited into disquieting shards of gunfire and cloak-and-shadow movement. Eerier, still, are the surreal moments with Kevin searching for a killer of neighborhood dogs who may be a figment of his imagination—a sign that he could be following in his apparently mentally-ill father’s (Scott Glenn) footsteps. A standalone episode plops us solely into Matt’s shoes as he embarks on a fevered journey to save his debt-ridden church and concludes with an O. Henry punchline that affirms, along with the potentially illusory dog killer, a steadily mounting sense of unease that—too neatly—connects back to the survivor’s guilt that drives the prevailing mass-communal narrative. (Kevin and Matt’s quests both link back to Kevin’s father, who is, due to his being committed to an asylum, a different kind of vanished one.) Emphasized by the ferocious, seemingly embittered barks of those dogs, these threads establish a sense of chaos, and of ghostly impermanency, that allows the rapture symbolism to periodically flourish as a metaphor for social erosion both timeless and contemporary.
But those thematics aren’t allowed to consistently breathe, primarily because the characters too often function as obvious shorthand placeholders for viewer projection. The actors, particularly the dull, inaccessible Theroux, resort to tics that fail to get under the skins of stereotypes like “self-servingly pragmatic mayor” or “hunky cop trying to make good” or “mourning babe ripe for said hunky cop’s redemptive embrace.” This over-emphatic obviousness might work if it were played as cheekily self-knowing trash in the vein of American Horror Story, but The Leftovers appears to be intended as a dead-serious, fatally humorless consideration of the personal self-interest inherent in the principle of faith, perhaps in the vein of the superior Big Love. Or something. It’s not always clear what the presiding point of all this is supposed to be. As The Leftovers proceeds from one scene of belabored misery to the next, it gradually nevertheless manages to answer one of its big questions, albeit unintentionally: There’s no wonder as to why God would leave these dullards earthbound.