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The Leftovers Recap: Season 1, Episode 2, “Penguin One, Us Zero”

Compared to “Pilot,” “Penguins One” is more focused, but the ambivalence it provokes remains the same.

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Photo: HBO

Troubled chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) first encounters the penguin of “Penguins One, Us Zero” during an exchange with the police department psychologist assigned to evaluate his fitness for duty. Garvey’s massacre of a pack of dogs (gone wild, local myth has it, after witnessing the Sudden Departure firsthand) has Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren) and the chief’s colleagues on the force worried about his mental state, and Garvey’s unsubstantiated claim that an unnamed “mystery man” (Michael Gaston) joined him in the shooting does little to quell their doubts. Amid the combative atmosphere of the counseling session, the most jarring detail is the presence of a goofy, inflatable black bird with large blue eyes and toucan-esque splashes of color on its body. “I work with a lot of kids,” the shrink explains. “They use it for aggression.” As its title suggests, the second episode of The Leftovers teems with flashes of anger, but it’s the objects of frustration that end up winning out.

More Revolutionary Road than The Road, “Penguins One, Us Zero” employs the strange details of a world more than three years distant from the Sudden Departure as a point of entry into the ordinary dissatisfactions of suburban existence. As in the pilot, the result is an uneasy détente between everyday rhythms (of coffee houses, cut classes, neighborly disputes) and grand mysteries (of messianic figures, Guilty Remnants, “Departure benefits”) that’s as unreasonably dull in certain moments as it is positively electric in others. Compared to “Pilot,” “Penguins One” is more focused, but the ambivalence it provokes remains the same. I have the sneaking suspicion I’ll come to love The Leftovers once it finds its footing, but it’s not yet clear whether there will be anyone else watching with me: In a televisual landscape cluttered with worthy series, the statute of limitations on unrealized potential is short.

The most promising development in “Penguins One” is the reintroduction of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), Mapleton’s martyr of note. Last spotted on the “Heroes Day” dais, describing the loss of her husband and two young children in the Sudden Departure, she now appears anything but an uncomplicated victim. While Jill Garvey (Margaret Qualley) and her friend, Aimee (Emily Meade), speculate on the gory details of the woman’s stricken life, the truth proves far more unnerving than the teens imagine. Coon emerges as force to be reckoned with, playing Nora with a calculated calm interrupted periodically by plays for sympathy. Idly pushing her mug off the table at a busy cafe, Nora relishes her ability to elicit kindness simply by dint of her family tragedy, and it’s a tribute to Coon’s skillfully modulated performance that one might read the character as both profoundly damaged and possibly monstrous. In the episode’s best scene, she conducts an interview with an elderly couple, the Pattersons, regarding a “Departure benefit” claim for their vanished son, Charlie. What begins as valiant, self-effacing bureaucratic work—the town’s foremost emblem of bereavement ensuring that all affected families receive their due—soon sours. As her bizarre line of questioning proceeds through food allergies, travel to Brazil, and enjoyment of cooking, discomfort mounts: “My son had Down syndrome,” Mrs. Patterson says tearfully, before Nora continues the interrogation. “To your knowledge,” her next question demands, “did Charlie have more than 20 sexual partners?” As with much of The Leftovers, the sequence provokes ambivalence, though in this case it’s the meaning, and not the quality, that seems be in doubt. Nora repeatedly expresses regret about the peculiarity of the questions, but it’s clear from the earlier interlude in the coffee shop that she’s also an accomplished manipulator. Is she there under false pretenses, or is the interview simply a brutish mechanism by which the government attempts to suss out a pattern linking the departed?

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Outside the Patterson house, Jill and Aimee surveil Nora’s movements from the front seat of a Prius belonging to obsequious twins Adam and Scott Frost (Max and Charlie Carver). While the girls struggle toward independence, mistaking mean-spirited puckishness for maturity, the boys blandly follow; unfortunately, none of the four manages to conjure much recognizable human emotion. By the end of the hour I found myself hoping they’d break out an iPhone and burn each other with hot forks, which might at least force them to feel something other than cruel diffidence. With the purported “drama” of Mapleton’s high school population, as with the self-abnegation of Holy Wayne henchman Tom Garvey (Chris Zylka), The Leftovers in fact evidences quite the tin ear for youth culture. Working over the fallow terrain of mean girls and tough guys, the series neglects to treat the particulars of growing up in a traumatized society with the same vigor with which it attends to the adults. Whether terrorizing the neighbors with disturbing questions, hallucinating dog murderers, taking a vow of silence, or burning a departed family member’s clothes on the grill, Mapleton’s adult population has essentially gone crazy, and in this context the “kids will be kids” approach is deeply unsatisfying. Married homeowners hold no monopoly on complex inner lives.

The older folks are far from uniformly nuanced. Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), with his wide, beseeching eyes and belief in “magic fucking hugs,” turns out to be a nutcase with a taste for underage Asian girls. For now, The Leftovers appears to be less interested in exploring the actual causes and consequences of religious fanaticism than deploying faith as window dressing for villainous ravings—though to be fair, with the exception of Sundance Channel’s Rectify, that’s par for the course. (Notably, the one faction The Leftovers has followed extensively thus far, the Guilty Remnant, isn’t what you’d call “faith-based.”) Nor does the tired trope of the hard-drinking cop estranged from his family and wrung out by workplace pressures seem adequate to Kevin Garvey’s desperate straits. Discovering if he’s following his former-police-chief father (Scott Glenn) into sanity’s borderlands is immaterial if he remains a grizzled cipher with an advanced case of male pattern sexiness. (As an aside, if he ends up fucking Aimee, as faintly suggested by an early dream sequence, I may have to bid The Leftovers adieu.)

In “Penguins One,” the women carry the weight, and as in the case of Nora Durst, The Leftovers is at its best when it homes in on the ways the post-Departure world amplifies and denatures commonplace, socially coded emotions (grief, wrath, suffocation, ennui) until they become almost unrecognizable. “THE OLD WORLD IS GONE,” reads the slogan projected from a television screen in the Guilty Remnant “pledge house” where Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) awaits initiation. In referring to a prelapsarian past, the mantra recalls the pilot’s concern with marking “before” and “after,” an understanding of time that Meg and her GR overseer Laurie Garvey (Amy Brenneman) echo in a shared, haunted moment near episode’s end. One prerequisite for membership in GR is the nightly relinquishment of an artifact from one’s former life—“Surrender,” Laurie writes in her notebook—and Meg pleads for a respite with an allusion to Laurie’s personal history.

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“Do you even remember what it feels like to care about anything?” Meg asks.

“I remember,” Laurie scrawls.

Member, dismember, remember, commemorate: The consonance that The Leftovers begins to unearth here is potent, suggesting a society torn limb from limb and haltingly pieced back together. The final image of “Penguins One” shows Meg laughing maniacally as she takes an ax to a sturdy tree, yet another object of frustration and aggression in an episode full of them. Stripped of the superegos that maintained the old world now gone, the residents of Mapleton revert to the id of animal instinct. Deep down, perhaps, we’re all just feral dogs waiting to be unleashed.

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For more Leftovers recaps, click here.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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Watch: The Long-Awaited Deadwood Movie Gets Teaser Trailer and Premiere Date

Welcome to fucking Deadwood!

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Deadwood
Photo: HBO

At long last, we’re finally going to see more of Deadwood. Very soon after the HBO series’s cancellation in 2006, creator David Milch announced that he agreed to produce a pair of two-hour films to tie up the loose ends left after the third season. It’s been a long road since, and after many false starts over the years, production on one standalone film started in fall 2018. And today we have a glorious teaser for the film, which releases on HBO on May 31. Below is the official description of the film:

The Deadwood film follows the indelible characters of the series, who are reunited after ten years to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. Former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.

And below is the teaser trailer:

Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31.

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