“There might be a lot of noise around the show, and people might love the pilot, but it might completely and totally sputter and burn out,” Damon Lindeolf told New York Times Magazine about “The Leftovers.” “We have not written a script or produced an episode yet where I go: ‘Booyah! That’s what I’m talking about!’ They’ve all been a gargantuan struggle.” And indeed, the first episode of HBO’s latest hopeful, won’t make anyone exclaim in excitement. Running 75 minutes long, much of the pilot is mere placesetting, establishing the scope and world the show will take place in, and the characters that will be our conduit into something that, at least from the outset, will be drawing comparisons to “Lost.”
Forever a weight around Lindelof’s neck, the parallels between this HBO venture and his ABC hit series with the controversial ending won’t be unwarranted. There’s the premise alone, which starts three years after an unexplained event causes 2% of the Earth’s population to vanish one ordinary, October 14th afternoon. And leading us through the story is a damaged male lead, this time played by Justin Theroux, as police chief and single father Kevin Garvey. There’s an oddball cult known as Guilty Remnant causing trouble around Mapleton, New York where the show is set. There’s another group of people led by eerily charismatic mystic Wayne (Paterson Joseph), who oversees a well guarded compound. And we haven’t mentioned the wild packs of roving dogs, hallucinations, book references (I expect Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” to jump in sales) and more. Intentionally or not, Lindelof has saddled himself with another show that opens up lots of questions, and provides some clues, with some more compelling than others.
At the center of the show is the three pronged world of Kevin Garvey. The police chief himself is barely clinging to the job his father also once had. Withheld until the end of the episode for dramatic effect (it doesn’t quite work), we learn that he has suffered a fate worse than a family member mysteriously disappearing. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has gone and joined the aforementioned cult, referred to as GRs, leaving him to raise his teenage daughter Jill (a Kristen Stewart-ish Margaret Qualley) alone. She’s going through problems of her own, lashing out at classmates and friends, and idly slipping into the kind of teenage parties we only see on TV, this time one that updates spin-the-bottle to include fucking and choking (and the “bottle” is an app on an iPhone). It’s a game which leads her friend Aimee (Emily Meade) to sleep with the boy Jill has a crush on, but what ultimately is troubling the young girl has little to do with high school romance. And then there’s Kevin son’s and Jill’s brother Tom (Chris Zylka), who works as a driver for the mysterious Wayne, bringing those who seek his counsel to the compound.
Much of the show is spent on the three — who are conveniently tied for narrative purposes to every major extension of the plot — and it’s a mixed bag. Kevin Garvey is easily the most intriguing and perhaps most haunted of any of the characters. He trusts the GRs very little, and with the episode centered around Mapleton’s plans for a “Heroes Day” tribute to those who departed, his icy clashes with the mayor, whom he advises to cancel the commemoration, are pretty terrific. Jill’s sour travails are a little less interesting, if only because much of it feels so rote and the aforementioned party seemingly included if only to meet the HBO quota for cable sleaze (even without nudity, but with oral sex). Her arc is ultimately one that reveals she’s simply unmoored thanks to her mother up and leaving the house. She has lost her faith in humanity in general, and when she buries a dead dog found in the trunk of her Dad’s car (long story short: dogs who witnessed the event are rumored to have gone “primal”; the cadaver is there because Kevin’s plans to bring it to the rightful owner after it was shot by a roving dog killer failed and he forgot it was there) she eulogizes it by saying, “We’re sorry you got stuck with us.”
As for Tom, he’s clearly trying to find something resembling an answer by working for Wayne, but it’s an environment suffused with awe and fear. When Wayne visits Tom in the middle of the night to warn him to stay away from a girl he’s been flirting with on the compound, it’s doubled with messages of a vision he’s received from his vanished son. It’s a prophecy that on the fast approaching third anniversary, “the grace period is over.” It’s easily the most chilling moment in the pilot and that prediction will soon come to pass. And that will be thanks to the GRs.
Easily the most “Lost”-ian element of the show, this all white wardrobe group is an interesting one. They’ve slowly been growing in numbers, and now own a small enclave of homes on a suburban cul-de-sac. Not only that, they don’t speak, and they don’t physically provoke, but they do follow the people who have lost someone in pairs, and simply standing near them, staring, smoking (“We Don’t Smoke For Our Enjoyment, We Smoke To Proclaim Our Faith” goes one slogan on their wall) and living up to their other motto, “We Are Living Reminders.” Reminders of what, exactly? We’ll have to wait and see, but if you’re wondering why you put someone like Ann Dowd in a role as the head of a group that (mostly) doesn’t speak, well, perhaps it’s because she has the screen presence to pull off that authority without uttering a word. And she does.
Anyway, though the plans are a bit hasty and the earnest nature a bit stretched, “Heroes Day,” which includes the unveiling of a hilariously ridiculous statue, mostly goes off without a hitch, save for the usual mad preachers who raise an interesting point that everyone who disappeared wasn’t necessarily virtuous (a great gag towards the end of the episode points out the celebrities that departed including Gary Busey and the Pope, highlighting just how random it all was). But for the most part, everyone on hand is ready to honor those who are gone. But just as a woman wraps up her heartbreaking story about losing her husband and two children, over the hill comes the GRs marching strong. Standing at the edge of the proceedings in a straight, single line, they each hold up a letter which spells out the message: STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH! The crowd grows angry, and though the GRs don’t fight back, a riot breaks out, with the cult taking a beating, and Kevin working with his meagre police force to try and keep order. Is this what Wayne was predicting? If so, it’s clearly only the start of what’s coming.
And oh wait, there’s still even more characters to dive into. Towards the latter half of the pilot, we’re introduced to Meg (Liv Tyler), a woman who seems to have it all, engaged to the attentive Darren (Bill Heck), but clearly suffering from some kind of malaise. GRs have been following her relentlessly, despite Matt’s efforts to drive them away, at first with kindness and later with force. But as the episode comes to a close, Meg shows up on their doorstep, looking to stay. But we’ll have to wait until next week to find out exactly she’s looking for.
But if Meg represents those who need to find some kind of outlet for their pain, Kevin Garvey is among those trying very hard to live with it. But enduring that weight will only start once he can be honest with himself. Late in the episode, Kevin is asked by a young woman — who horrifyingly loses her baby to the event in pilot’s gripping opening — where he was on October 14th (yes, there’s shades of 9/11 here). In a previous flashback we know he was having sex with someone, though when he lies about his location, it’s clear it might not have been with his wife. If Kevin is dealing with trying to police a town that is still emotionally fraught, while nursing his own guilt over how he treated his wife, finding salvation will not be easy. And it doesn’t help that strange occurrences — like waking up to find his kitchen thoroughly trashed, as if by an animal, even though no one else was at home — are testing his overall sanity.
“ ‘The Leftovers’ is not constructed as a cliffhangery show,” Lindelof told The New York Times Magazine. “It’s not built to be like, oh, my God, we’ve got to watch the next episode immediately. But at the same time, it is built so that when one episode ends, you want to keep watching the show.” And while the pilot is perhaps too bloated, and even a bit clumsily put together by director Peter Berg, Lindelof needs to be given credit for pivoting and hoping to hook viewers on the characters, tone and themes and not on a pre-credits stinger and empty mystique.
It’s new test of his skills as a storyteller, presented within a familiar package, and if anything, “The Leftovers” likely needs at least half the season to see if Lindelof can avoid some of the pitfalls that wound up turning “Lost” into disappointment for many. And so don’t look for a grade here, as it seems unfair to put a mark on what is clearly something akin to a preface to a novel. But do know that I’ll be watching next week, with Lindelof having at least gotten this writer piqued enough to see if what he’ll eventually unravel will be worth it.