Damon Lindelof may forever be haunted — or blessed — by his breakout television show, “Lost,” depending on your opinion of the twisty, mystery-driven ABC drama. While some fans were pleased with the ending, it seems like most were frustrated with the answers provided for a show with so many questions. In Lindelof’s first foray into television since his island drama ended in 2010, he’s chosen a premise friendly to an audience skeptical of his ability to finish strong. “The Leftovers” doesn’t demand an answer to its big, central question. Instead, it asks for acceptance that you may never know.
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who also serves as co-creator and executive producer, “The Leftovers” begins on October 14th, a date carrying as much meaning as 9/11 in this universe. And while “The Leftovers” isn’t exactly an allegory for the terrorist attacks 13 years prior — too much emphasis is placed on the not knowing rather than the losses — its tone is as dour as if it were, almost covering itself from criticism if anyone jumps to the association. It’s certainly applicable for this scenario, as well. Many different names are given for the people who disappeared without warning or reason that day, amounting to two percent of the world’s population: “poofed” (like a magic trick) and “departed” being the most prevalent. Yet each carries with it the feelings of its user, exemplifying the communal divide at the center of Lindelof’s creation.
The small town of Mapleton is torn apart. As Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), our lead protagonist, claims during the pilot, the citizens aren’t ready to move on, they’re ready to explode. Every person in “The Leftovers” is grieving in one way or another. Some are in denial, as Garvey is, refusing to deal with the event emotionally even as he’s forced to deal with it at work every day. Others turn to religion, claiming those who were taken were the only ones worthy of ascending to heaven or arguing it was simply part of God’s plan. Still others look to false prophets who claim they can cure the pain left in the hearts and souls of those still here. A small, but ever-present group of cult-like individuals stalk townsfolk in order to recruit them. Why? Simply to remind everyone of what happened, as if they would forget.
These factions and divisions provide broad beliefs for people to latch onto, but Lindelof and Peter Berg, who directs the first two episodes and serves as executive producer throughout, illustrate the fine lines in the individual characters. While the two may not seem like a logical duo initially — Lindelof made his mark in science fiction mysteries featuring big twists while Berg is known for his intense examination of personal relationships in films like “The Kingdom,” “Lone Survivor,” and “Friday Night Lights” (both the film and the TV show, though Jason Katims certainly contributed to the latter more) — they actually form the perfect partnership for this complex parable. The “Lost” creator showed an ability to build characters over long stretches, relying heavily on extended flashbacks to illustrate the fine lines of his players. Berg can do it with a few sentences. “Friday Night Lights” is a graduate course in succinct emotional bonding, but the writer/director has proven his deft ear for dialogue time and time again with quips, asides, and natural, overlapping dialogue in brilliant exchanges throughout his catalog.
He brings it again here. Throughout the first two episodes of “The Leftovers,” we’re not only drawn in by the immediately intriguing central premise, but by characters who are both fully formed and entirely divisive. They’re at war with themselves and each other. Everyone remaining is dealing with an inner turmoil we can only grasp through their performances and the profound depiction by Berg, Lindelof, and Perrotta. Berg remains the only director who can use the early aughts shaky cam technique properly, effectively zooming and reframing at carefully chosen moments to make them land with intensity. Lindelof understands how to build the overarching drama and establish a story that’s immediately gripping, while Perrotta had the imagination and drive to get this thing off the ground in the first place. Together they create a dreary yet captivating, troubling but strangely hopeful two hours of television.
Then Episode 3 hits, and the movement slows ever so slightly. Dedicated entirely to Reverend Jamison, the episode harks back to Lindelof’s “Lost” flashback-version of character development, spending the entire time with one man and his purposeful, but less compelling plight. It’s not that Jamison’s issues aren’t pressing or that Christopher Eccleston’s performance is lacking (it’s pretty superb, as are everyone else’s). But it’s a come down after the brilliant interweaving of arcs from episodes one and two, and an illustration of Berg’s influence on the show. It’s the first hour not to be directed by the EP, and replacement Keith Gordon doesn’t mimic his style well, if at all. Gone are many of the off-balance shots and visual urgency, replaced by an audibly louder score and heightened acting to help maintain the pre-established tone. It works, and fits, but feels as close to a filler episode as you can get in a 10-episode season.
Lindelof has shown, at least to some, that he needs help when it comes to polishing the edges of his ideas. Television has always been a collaborative medium, more so even than film, and for more than two hours it appeared like the “Prometheus” scribe had finally found the ideal yin to his yang. Yet even without Berg behind the camera, “The Leftovers” is still ahead of the competition because it’s given itself the perfect out right from the start. During an early scene, Chief Garvey is watching the news as a commission hired to find out what happened on the 14th unveils its findings: nothing. They don’t know. With this revelation, Lindelof seems to be giving a knowing nod to his skeptics, saying it’s okay we may never know why two percent of the world disappears. Perhaps it would be better if we did, but the concern here isn’t with why they’re gone, but how these leftovers will deal with their departure. It’s a bleak premise that won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s exquisite television for those who can handle it.
“The Leftovers” premieres Sunday, June 29th at 10pm on HBO.