July 7, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “The Leftovers”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on THE LEFTOVERS:  3 years ago, 2% of the world’s population simultaneously and spontaneously vanished, in what may have been the Rapture (albeit a Rapture that took Gary Busey and the cast of Perfect Strangers along with the Pope).  The troubles of those who remain are encapsulated by the family of Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the Chief of Police of Mapleton, NY.  Kevin himself has disturbing nightmares and, perhaps, hallucinations; his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined one of the cults that have sprung up since the mass departure; his son Tom (Chris Zylka) has dropped out of college and now works for another cult leader; his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), while seemingly the most “normal” of the family, is coping with feelings of emotional dislocation; and Kevin’s father (Scott Glenn), the former Chief, is in a mental institution.

Episode 2:  The hour began with Tom Garvey killing an FBI agent who was threatening Christine (Annie Q), whom cult leader Wayne (Paterson Joseph) had told him to protect because of her unexplained importance, so you can’t say The Leftovers became any more cheerful in its second stanza.  The episode, written by series co-creator Damon Lindelof and Supervising Producer Kat Lingenfelter, and directed like the pilot by Peter Berg, seemed to confirm the intention of the series to avoid anything like tightly-knit plotting.  Events occurred, of course, with the main storylines being the initiation of Meg (Liv Tyler) into the Guilty Remnant cult, with Laurie Garvey as her supervisor (at episode’s end, it wasn’t clear whether Meg was staying with the GR), and the uncertainty of whether the man (Michael Gaston) with whom Kevin was shooting dogs in the pilot was real or a Tyler Durden-like imagined companion, like the voices Kevin’s father hears and talks to at the asylum (which also may or may not be real).  So far, though, there’s been a great deal of bleak, existential moodiness, but very little attempt to bring any of the storylines together beyond the general shared feel of uncertainty and desperation.

We’re 2 hours into the 10 that HBO is giving us of The Leftovers this season, and the show is busily adding to its mysteries, far beyond the central and probably never to be answered one of just what happened 3 years earlier.   (We do, however, gratefully know that whatever is going on in the world didn’t steal Kevin’s bagel, which was stuck in the back of the office toaster.)  While it’s unfair to worry that none of these puzzles will be solved in a satisfying way, just because Damon Lindelof is the head writer of The Leftovers and Lost made Lindelof king of the unsatisfying solutions–nevertheless, there it is.  The Leftovers didn’t have to be a show made up of tantalizing, vaguely supernatural hints and enigmas–it could have been a relatively realistic look at life after this one incomprehensible event, which is more the way that the underlying novel (written by series co-creator Tom Perrota) is written–but now that it’s chosen that route, it’s going to have to deliver at some point, and its showrunner’s track record in that regard is scarily, epically bad.

If Lindelof, Perrota and the other writers intend to keep everything unresolved indefinitely, they haven’t provided enough here at this point to make that a satisfying experience.  The acting is uniformly excellent, but the nature of the show’s mood is that all the performances hit variations of the same note, and as we pass from one character’s alienation to the next, it’s all in danger of leveling into high-quality monotonousness.  Berg’s direction, much more classically structured than in his films, is tight and effectively mournful, but again without many changes in tone.  Grief and incomprehension, as the subjects of a continuing series, can only provide so much drama.

The Leftovers had a solid if not notable launch in the ratings, and unless its numbers collapse, there’s a good chance HBO will stick with it beyond this season, as it’s provoking the kind of buzz and acknowledgement of distinction that the network feeds on.  (However, note to HBO:  it may be time to accept the fact that all but the cleverest in-jokes about The Wire have passed their expiration date.)  Whether it has the substance to be a long-running piece of work, however, is still unclear.


PILOT + 1:  Even Mazes Have Exits

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."