Directed by Peter Berg | Written by Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta | 72 min
Lost, then found
By Colin Hart
8.8 / 10
Let me start by saying that The Leftovers is one of the greatest shows in television history. Top ten, for sure.
Two things can hurt its legacy bid, however: 1) the shortened length (3 seasons, 28 episodes), and 2) the polarizing first season.
Like Halt and Catch Fire, The Leftovers is a show that drastically improved in its second year. When compared to what came afterward, the debut seasons of both shows are largely lackluster.
Let me also say that I’m a firm believer that season one ain’t so bad. It’s quite good, actually. Likewise, the series premiere is an atmospheric treat. Not without flaws, obviously, but not half bad for a second chance at a fresh start.
Ain’t that right, Damon Lindelof?
The Leftovers is a show that is unconcerned with answering any questions, preferring instead to rely on ambiguity. Let the mystery be. Damon Lindelof’s previous TV show—the cultural phenomenon Lost—was all about trying to find the answers to mystery-box questions. People got pissed when Lindelof and co. couldn’t come up with satisfying answers by the end.
The Leftovers is almost like Lindelof’s attempt to make up for his previous squib, and the “Pilot” goes a long way in making amends for past wrongs. The concept is completely gratifying and original: on October 14th, 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes without a trace.
Instead of shock and awe, Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta (who wrote the original novel, The Leftovers, on which the show is based) are aiming for prestige. The Leftovers—in the grand tradition of previous HBO dramas—focuses on the survivors who are forced to continue on with their lives rather than solving what happened to those who were taken. It is the “leftovers,” after all.
Like The Sopranos before it, The Leftovers is a character study masquerading as genre fare. Boiled down, The Sopranos is a mob show and The Leftovers is a sci-fi, but they are both really about—yawn—family.
The show focuses, in particular, on the Garvey family, who (paraphrasing from the great Alan Sepinwall) didn’t lose anyone to the Sudden Departure, but instead lost each other.
Kevin Garvey—ably played by Justin Theroux—is the show’s resident anti-hero. He’s a real asshole (Mapleton County police chief) but he’s incredibly good-looking. He was crafted from Don Draper’s mold. In fact, Kevin may be more handsome than Don Draper. But he’s a far bigger dick than Mad Men would usually allow.
In this pilot, Kevin comes off as somewhat likeable (everyman status, cares about kids), with a semi-charismatic streak, but he’s nothing immediately special. The one thing he does have going for him, though, are his occasional brushes with supernatural ambiguity.
Kevin’s daughter, Jill, is your typical moody teenager. Perhaps I’m being too harsh—who wouldn’t be a little moody after 2% of the world’s population fucking disappeared? Maybe that’s why the sex party Jill attends—by far, the worst portion of the episode—is so droll. Where’s the love? If I want to get choked while I wank it, I can do without the sarcasm.
Jill’s inclusion is essential to what the pilot wants to say—the micro-fracturing of the Garvey family within the larger fracturing of the world—but it isn’t anything to get excited about. The way Jill’s friend Aimee looks at Kevin from across the dinner table is something to potentially get excited about, however.
Cut off from the main storyline in Mapleton, New York, is Kevin’s prodigal son, Tom. He kinda looks like a young Kirk Cousins—a doe-eyed doofus. Tom is somewhere in the American southwest, seemingly, and he is working for a cult-like figure named Holy Wayne. He transports a Congressman to Wayne’s secret complex, which is crawling with fine Asian girls, all so Wayne can give the Congressman an ambiguous “gift.”
Whatever is going on with Tom and “Holy” Wayne almost feels like an entirely different show, sort of like Danaerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Whenever the pilot sidesteps to this new locale, it feels jarring and disjointed. Yet unlike the Mother of Dragons, Tom Garvey can’t hold his own.
Like I’ve said before, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta aren’t interested in providing any easy answers. Instead, The Leftovers examines how people search for those answers. Religion plays a key role throughout the show, with a fine line between the logical and the supernatural.
The Guilty Remnant is a non-religious cult (sect?) that has sprung up in the wake of the Sudden Departure. Its members have taken vows of silence, dress all in white and chain-smoke like motherfuckers. They are of an extremely depressing point-of-view: “We are living reminders.”
Throughout the episode, we watch as the Guilty Remnant recruits a new member, Meg (Liv Tyler). The Remnant are total downers, and most of their scenes make you swell up with hatred inside, but everything comes together when Meg shows up at their cul-de-sac at the end of the episode to enlist—this is how some people cope.
One of the episode’s big surprises—and one of the few answered questions—comes when we find out that the Guilty Remnant member we have been following is actually Laurie Garvey, Kevin’s estranged wife. It’s an emotional revelation that adds interesting shades to Kevin’s character, too.
The centerpiece of the episode is the annual “Heroes’ Day” Parade, a day of remembrance in the town of Mapleton. Kevin is worried that the Remnant are planning something and that things are going to get ugly. Which they do, of course. The GR’s protest is met with hostile reaction from the townspeople and violence ensues. This scene, more or less, sets up the main conflict for the entire season.
By the end of the episode, with Kevin unable to successfully connect with his daughter, his son or his wife, we see our lead character as a broken man who is as alone in this world as everybody else. Maybe that’s why it’s totally fine that the episode ends with Kevin and a mystical redneck shooting at a pack of rabid dogs—this is how some people cope.
Overall, this is not a great pilot. It is a very good one, not a great one. Parts of it are very disjointed (how ‘bout those jarring flashbacks?) and some of it runs the risk of being boring, but the central premise is failsafe. Sadly, the show gets a little worse before it gets better, but get better it does. Almost the best, in fact.
Trudge through the slog, because The Leftovers is definitely worth it.
Throughout the episode, Kevin has several moments of atmospheric introspection—an otherworldly connection. He stares hard into a deer’s eyes, and he encounters Dean, the man shooting at all the dogs. Dean tells Kevin that “they’re not our dogs anymore.” It’s little moments of ambiguity like this that make The Leftovers such a mesmerizing show, and also help add to Kevin’s charisma as a lead character.
The first scene of the episode takes place on that fateful October 14th. A woman is chatting on the phone while her baby cries in the backseat. She looks back to find her baby has disappeared. As she searches frantically in the street, several other people are making similar cries of bewilderment. Cars crash in the background.
The intro does a great job at depicting just how horrific—and how quiet—the Sudden Departure was. But I think it could have been done a little better, actually. It wasn’t as tense as I felt it could have been.
Just how much paper do the Guilty Remnant waste? My God. Simple messages like “OK” do not need to take up a whole sheet of loose leaf.
The flashbacks are extremely quick, jumpy and noisy mini-scenes that disrupt the flow of the episode. Among them are Kevin having sex with another woman and Kevin’s father—former police chief Kevin Garvey, Sr.—running naked during a party. Not cool.
“I get the Pope. But Gary fucking Busey? How does he make the cut?”
“I was in my house. Cleaning out a gutter.”