June 30, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Leftovers”


THE LEFTOVERS:  Sunday 10PM on HBO – Potential DVR Alert

Part of the HBO mystique–what helps keep it so not-TV-ish–is the caliber of shows it doesn’t put on the air.  An adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, directed by Noah Baumbach and with a cast headed by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor?  Not good enough.  A comedy inspired by blogger Nikki Finke, with Diane Keaton in the Finke role and Ellen Page as her assistant?  No thanks.  If these are the shows HBO discards, the reasoning goes (and the network reinforces this by refusing to let other networks take over its projects once it’s paid for a pilot), the ones that actually make the cut must truly be special.  An HBO premiere, more than those at any other network or streaming service, is an Event.  Of course, sometimes the Emperor’s programming has no clothes (and since this is HBO, that means in all possible senses):  John From Cincinnati, Just Tell Me You Love Me and Luck come readily to mind.

It’s too soon to tell where THE LEFTOVERS will fall on this spectrum.  The 75-minute pilot that aired tonight did a gripping job of setting up the central situation and some of the characters, raising puzzling, even chilling mysteries about what’s actually going on.  One’s spirits may sink, though, with the knowledge that the series’ co-creator is Damon Lindelof, the poster child since the finale of Lost for raising dazzling mysteries and satisfying hardly any of them.  If the plan this time is not to solve the mysteries at all–and that may very well be the case, since the focus here is on day-to-day life after a cosmic occurrence, not a quest to solve one–it’s not clear how long that can sustain itself as the premise for a continuing story.

For the moment, though, we have a first-rate pilot.  The Leftovers is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, who also wrote the books that were the basis of Election and Little Children, and Lindelof and Perrotta created the series together and co-wrote the first episode.  The set-up is quite straightforward:  3 years before the events of the series, 2 percent of the world’s population spontaneously and simultaneously vanished.  Poof.  They were all ages, nationalities, genders, and religions, good people and bad, from babies and the Pope to Shaq and Gary Busey.  If it was the Biblical Rapture, the people taken don’t all seem to satisfy the criteria, and there have been no follow-ups back on Earth.  No one knows whether the people who are gone are alive or dead, or what “alive” and “dead” even mean in the context of this event.

3 years later, the mass vanishing has left deep scars on the people who are left.  Cults have sprung into being, including one called Guilty Remnant, whose members dress in white, don’t speak aloud, and chain-smoke as they silently stare at townspeople and provoke some of hem to violence; while another is built around a cheery but vaguely threatening man named Wayne (Paterson Joseph), who claims that big trouble is coming.  The local dogs ran off when the vanishing occurred, but now that some of them are back, they’ve gone feral.  The survivors feel guilt and a grim existential uncertainty about the nature of the universe and their place in it, so that even teen sex and drug parties feel detached and desperate.

The show takes place in the small town of Mapleton, New York, and centers around the family of Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the local chief of police.  Kevin is falling apart, troubled by nightmares that may be premonitions and the collapse of his family.  His daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is an alienated high school student who’s developing behavioral issues; his son Tom (Chris Zylka) has quit college to work for the guru Wayne; and his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined the Guilty Remnant, where she serves under Patti (Ann Dowd) and will be the training guide for newly-arrived Meg (Liv Tyler), who broke off her engagement to be part of the group.

Peter Berg, directing the pilot (he also took a Hitchcockian cameo), skillfully handles the dark, slightly surreal mood (“Is this a dream?” Kevin asks someone at one point), with much less jittery handheld camerawork than he usually provides.  (The cinematographer is Michael Slovis, who shot many episodes of Breaking Bad.)  There’s very strong use of music, and although the pace is measured, it never lags.  Theroux and Brenneman, giving very different kinds of emotionally tortured performances, are both striking, as is Qualley as their daughter.

The question for The Leftovers is whether this story about inchoate grief and painful unknowability can lend itself to to the forward motion a continuing series requires, and if so, what direction will it take?  A mystical/spiritual bent could feel false, but so might a conventional soap storyline that plays down the central mysteries.  The complication, of course, is whether Lindelof, who successfully kept so many narrative balls in the air for so many years on Lost, only to drop them with a crash that’s still reverberating, is the man to handle this particular project.

It’s doubtful that The Leftovers, with its air of mostly quiet misery, will be one of HBO’s blockbuster hits, but that’s OK–the network is in the business of buzz as much as ratings, and this series already has plenty of the former.  (Also, the True Blood lead-in will help.)  Whether it will justify its place on the most exclusive line-up in town remains to be seen.


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."