Damon Lindelof's last show, Lost, struggled with the unknown and the audience's desire for an explanation. His new one, The Leftovers, goes in the right direction—it's about struggling with the unknown. In this case, it's novelist Tom Perrotta's concept of a rapture-like event where two percent of the world's population suddenly disappears; there's no enlightenment as to why, and no outward sign of impending religious doom. But the central question Lindelof and Perrotta ask in the pilot of The Leftovers, which focuses on four members of a splintering family three years after the disappearances, is whether we can see the forest for the trees.
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), chief of police in a suburban town, basically presents as normal, and that's because he is—he's embittered by a fractured family situation and drinking a little too much, but these are not problems one can blame on the supernatural. Kevin is just someone trying to keep it together in the face of something he can't hope to explain, which is of course how most people deal with such things. At the same time, the rapture is lurking in the backs of everyone's minds, an excuse for everyone's behavior, a slow, creeping reason to leave the old tenets of society behind.
Lindeolf is consciously steering away from the pulpy hallmarks of Lost. There are brief flashbacks to darker times, but they last only a few seconds, not like the long, specific character-shading provided in every episode of the ABC blockbuster. There's no real effort to address the central mystery, or point the audience in a direction that will leave them salivating for answers. The Leftovers is very much an HBO show in that regard—it's much more concerned with setting an overall mood and giving us a visual aesthetic to hold on to.
It's not like there's no plot, and there are certainly things I'm looking forward to finding out more about, like the cult group dressed in white who hang around smoking, take vows of silence and generally seeming concerned with freaking everyone out. Another Garvey, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), is wrapped up with this bunch, but all we learn about them in the pilot outside of their weird no-talking rules is their desire to linger on the fringes and unsettle everyone else.
One of Kevin's kids, Tom (Chris Zylka), is in a different sort of culty environment, sunning himself at some mountain retreat that oozes new age-y pleasantness. The other, Jill (Margaret Qualley), is still at home but sinking into a dark, hedonistic party scene that only seems to draw her for its utter nihilism. Again, outside of the vow-of-silence cult, all of this has both feet in reality. There are a thousand reasons a suburban family would be struggling like this, but at the same time, there's an incident of global consequence hovering over everyone's heads.
Peter Berg directed the pilot, and it's reminiscent of his best stuff, in terms of dreamy, hazy atmosphere. There are parts of Friday Night Lights (the movie and the TV pilot) that made scenes of nothing happening crackle with electricity, and the same thing is happening here. There's a dreadful air over some scenes, particularly those involving animals. Much like before an earthquake, it feels like the dogs know something the cast of The Leftovers don't, and they're acting insane as a result. This is the kind of foreboding stuff Lindelof excelled at in Lost, but this time we know better than to expect a simple reason why.
The cast is pretty strong—Theroux is all brooding anger and clenched teeth, but with enough darkly funny notes not to be a total bummer. Brenneman has been seemingly aged 20 years since her work on the far more chipper Private Practice, but she wears a stony face with enough hints of doubt to keep her "silent sister" act intriguing. The supremely talented Brit Patterson Joseph shows up, not even a credited cast member, as the head of Tom's new-agey cult, and he's a thrilling mix of sexual magnetism and menace. Another talented Brit, Christopher Eccleston, pops up in the final act for what should be a promising role right in his wheelhouse—a ranting protestor who might just have a point. The only bum note comes from Liv Tyler as a lady tortured with existential malaise on the verge of her wedding, but there's plenty of narrative promise to all of this.
After the zeitgeisty wonders of Game of Thrones, and the pulpy nonsense of its timeslot partner True Blood, The Leftovers is going to have a harder time winning over a huge audience, but I'm thankful to see HBO switching gears and letting more of a dreamy slow-burn like this on air. Of course, there's plenty of opportunity for the wheels to come off the bus, but with HBO shows, it's usually the other way around—it takes a little while to draw us in, but then we fall for things hard.