The Leftovers drops you into the soup and expects you to just keep up. It also has a big ensemble and a lot of little things going on, but at the same time no huge forward momentum, plot-wise. Yes, everyone knows a rapture happened, but the details are slim—we just know that 2 percent of people disappeared, including a baby who vanishes in the opening moments of the show, and then we jump forward three years into a very gloomy world. Let's try to break everything down, shall we?
The disappearances themselves are handled with subtlety: all we know is that people were there one second, and then they suddenly weren't. We get this mostly through the oldest device in the book: the camera shows us a baby in a car seat, it moves away for a second, and when it floats back, the baby is gone. I don't know if the show is ever going to give us a visual of someone actually vanishing, but I doubt it. The Leftovers is rooted in the creeping dread of the unknown, and as we cut to three years later, the biggest thing everyone is wrestling with is that they don't know why the disappearances happened.
Our main character is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), one in a long line of HBO protagonists who goes jogging to relieve his existential stress (I'm mostly thinking of Six Feet Under's Nate Fisher). He's the chief of police in his unnamed town, and he's got one remaining family member under his roof, distant teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley). He spends most of the pilot worried about animals he encounters, from wild dogs to a deer that later seems to rampage through his house and destroy a lot of things.
Kevin is a classic case of a guy Just Barely Holding It Together. While his wife and son have both left for separate movements trying, in their own way, to reconcile with the Sudden Departure, Kevin is trying to just leave it behind, adopting the "we're still here" attitude. He's trying to reach his son by phone and later on petitions the cult that's absorbed his wife to see her, but those efforts are obviously proving useless, so he's obsessed with trying to stop a random man (Michael Gaston) who is summarily executing wild animals on the road. The pilot's emotional arc concludes here: Kevin drawing his gun and firing wildly into the dark means he may be accepting the darkness of the post-Departure world. That's a pretty bum note to end a pilot on, but this is not going to be an upbeat show.
Kevin's wife (ex-wife, estranged wife, whatever) Laurie is played by Amy Brenneman and serves as our eyes into the Guilty Remnant, the white-clad silent clan who seem to exist only to bother people through an extreme version of non-violent resistance. This is the most Lost-like element of the pilot (written, don't forget, by Damon Lindelof) in that you spend the whole hour asking "what's the deal with these guys!?" Ann Dowd is well-cast as Laurie's chapter leader, or whatever—she's an actress who can project a lot of haunted experience behind her eyes, so it feels like she's a woman with all the answers.
But I don't think The Leftovers is really going to be a show about answers so much as it'll be about the new world order that's just starting to settle in after years of shell-shock. The Guilty Remnant is the most extreme part of that re-ordering, and the reasons for their behavior will surely be explained, but there won't be a secret box in the bottom of their headquarters covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics for the internet to examine.
The most inscrutable storylines right now, honestly, are Kevin's kids. Jill's teenage peers have taken self-destructive behavior to logical extremes with their crazy sex house parties where they brand each other with hot forks and lord knows what else, but Jill seems either burned out or unsure of how to proceed, passively choking a boy in bed as he masturbates but having no real interest in what's going on.
Tom's (Chris Zylka) cult is just some nice sunny relaxing place where people go to be unburdened, but there's a wonderfully dark edge to his scene with its leader, played by Patterson Joseph, that at least gives us the hint that things are not what they seem at this blissed-out retreat. The closing shot of Tom screaming in the swimming pool is beautifully executed and lets us know that he is as burdened with doubt as the rest of his family—hardly a surprise, but at least gorgeously presented.
There's two other major characters who really just exist as dangling threads in this pilot. Liv Tyler's Meg is a woman about to get married to some boring dude, whose utter disturbance at the Guilty Remnant's presence belies a secret fascination with what they represent (her own feelings of guilt/horror at the Departure, which I'm sure we'll explore in later episodes). Tyler has never been an actress that interested me much, and her work on this episode didn't change that, but I'm sure she'll be hugely relevant to exploring how it is the Remnant work.
Then there's Christopher Eccleston as Matt Jamison, some sort of man of the cloth who has renounced his beliefs and preaches about the Departure being no rapture. Eccleston has made a career playing three-dimensional fanatics and I can't wait to see what he does with this character. But here he's just present for a snippet of a scene in the Heroes Day ceremony, which is broken up by the Remnant's silent protest.
The Leftovers' pilot is a classic HBO lead-off: lots of promise, lots of mood, lots of characters, tons of unresolved questions, just enough of a hook to draw you back next week. We'll probably all be obsessed by the end of the month.