I’ll say this for The Leftovers: it is equal-opportunity sad. Men, women, children: there is enough existential despair in HBO’s new drama to go around, and then some. Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of the 2011 Tom Perrotta novel sees the town of Mapleton, NY, dealing with the aftermath of a Rapture-like event from three years earlier, in which two percent of the world’s population simply disappeared. In the style of Lindelof’s Lost, it is a large and ensemble-ish cast, though Justin Theroux’s police chief and his family are clearly in the foreground.
I’ll try to write about the pilot in a non-spoilery way, though if you really don’t want to know anything, I’d suggest skipping this until after you’ve seen it for yourself. The show premieres Sunday at 10 PM.
The show features several potentially juicy female roles, and I’m hoping this turns out to be true, especially after spending a good part of the last season of Game of Thrones trying to rationalize my continued allegiance to a show that makes such fetishistic sport of misogyny and rape. (The names I recite to myself, defensively: Arya, Brienne, Daenerys.) In contrast, The Leftovers doesn’t appear in its pilot to hew too much to gender stereotypes. Encouragingly, the town’s mayor is a black woman (Amanda Warren, working a serious Condi Rice look and tone) who is busy coordinating a commemorative event called “Heroes Day” to honor the departed (“because no one’s going to come to a parade on What The Fuck Happened Day”).
One of the show’s creepiest aspects is a largely female cult called Guilty Remnant. And this is where we encounter Amy Brenneman (Judging Amy, Private Practice), who doesn’t utter a single word throughout the 75-minute episode and yet delivers the pilot’s powerhouse performance. She, like all the members of Guilty Remnant, wears all white, has taken a vow of silence, and chain-smokes to symbolize the group’s mantra, “Stop wasting your breath” — a reference, I believe, to the rest of the world’s efforts to rationalize or find a scientific explanation for the mass disappearance.
Brenneman looks so world-weary in this role — her split ends alone are a cosmetic masterpiece — that I’d say she communicates without speaking, but her motives are such a mystery. She seems intelligent, so why is she casting her lot with this cult? Why are she and another female member standing outside a woman’s house, smoking and stalking?
Another welcome sight: Ann Dowd as the Guilty Remnant den mother. Dowd’s such a dynamo of a character actor (remember her turn in True Detective‘s spectacularly creepy finale?), and a scene between her and Brenneman consisting entirely of scribbled notes manages to be totally compelling. But her character, too, seems the antithesis of someone you’d find in a cult. She doesn’t look brainwashed, but looks like your down-to-earth next-door neighbor, an impression that’s shored up when she opens her mouth to welcome a new arrival to the group towards the end of the episode.
I was surprised to see Liv Tyler in this show’s cast list. Where’s she been? (Apparently shooting two movies, Space Station 76 and Jamie Marks is Dead, that played at Sundance and have yet to find release dates). Here, she’s Meg, a woman who appears to be on the verge of some sort of breakdown. During a car ride and dinner with her fiance, she’s clearly phoning in her excitement about their upcoming wedding. How does this connect to the fact that Guilty Remnant is passing around a photo of her, nodding at one another?
Finally, there’s Margaret Qualley (Andie MacDowell’s daughter, which is really obvious once you know it) as Theroux’s teenage daughter, Jill. One of the show’s most unsettling scenes shows her at a house party where kids are playing an iPhone version of Spin the Bottle that I really hope doesn’t actually exist, in which options come up like “Fuck,” “Choke” and “Burn.” She and her friend Aimee (Emily Meade) seem prematurely debauched, but not in a particularly objectifying way. The effect of the mass disappearance on the adolescent crowd seems to have led everyone, male and female, toward an increased flirtation with darkness and disaster.
And it is all darkness and disaster in The Leftovers, at least in the pilot. It’s a striking debut, and it stuck with me hours after I’d seen it. The obvious 9/11 allusions are there (the fictional event took place on the somewhat similar October 14th), but it also mines broader questions of how we cope with the unexplainably awful, and how we continue on after our families or friendships are shattered.
Still, I’m hoping for a bit more emotional nuance in the episodes to come. After all, Perrotta’s Little Children was plenty dark, but it also contained moments of levity — another key way we cope with life’s horribleness. There’s only the briefest flicker of humor in this episode, seen during a TV montage of people who were lost on the maybe-Rapture of October 14th.
“I get the Pope,” says a bartender. “But… Gary Busey?”