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What Went Wrong with HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’?

What Went Wrong with HBO's 'The Leftovers'?

HBO has a remarkable success rate, if you think about it, from “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom,” “True Detective” and “True Blood” to “Game of Thrones.” All these series mix TV and film creative elements with strong characters, a fair dose of sex and the good old uber-violence. So what went wrong with HBO’s latest series from “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof, which debuted to mixed reviews (here’s Variety’s Brian Lowry) and ratings Sunday night? It had all of those things. (HBO is making the first show available until Sunday July 6 on Yahoo.)

First, the advance TV spots looked grim. Two per cent of the world’s population vanishes in an instant, as poof! the baby vanishes from the rear car seat. Per the well-reviewed Tom Perrotta novel, how does everyone cope? Three years later, the story focuses on one struggling family, as single dad police chief (unbelievably played by too-tattooed and stylish Justin Theroux) and his misbehaving teenage daughter deal with the loss of his wife. His son works for one how-to-adapt guru, while a white-garbed, silent, cigarette-smoking cult confronts the survivors in its own way. Lindelof is trying to snag us with wanting to solve the various mysteries, but fails to engage us with these troubled characters. I was often confounded by their behavior. Why would a group of teens voluntarily bury a stranger’s dead dog? (Here’s Lindelof talking to THR.)

And early buzz on the Twittersphere was dour–as was reaction to Sunday’s pilot, including “confused,” “bleak” and “heavy stuff.” And as I watched the show I could see why. I really don’t feel compelled to watch the rest of this resolutely downbeat series. Executive produced by showrunner Lindelof and adapted by him and Perrotta with co-exec producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who produced Perrotta’s “Little Children,” these gifted folks seem to have lost their way. Subsequent episodes may, of course, improve. But isn’t it the job of the first one to seduce us into wanting more?

So on Sunday night, partly due to a soft debut for its lead-in, the latest season of “True Blood” with 3.1 million viewers (is vampire fatigue setting in?), “The Leftovers” premiered to just 1.8 million eyeballs for its initial telecast, far below the network’s previous touted dramas. For comparison: last January HBO’s “True Detective” lured 2.33 million viewers, in June 2012 “The Newsroom” 2.14 million, and in June 2011, “Game of Thrones” 2.22 million.

The question is: how many viewers will tune back after sampling this dour first episode? And will HBO renew the show? Cancelations are rare–race track drama “Luck” comes to mind (three horses dying on set provided an excuse). Even the low-rated “Carnivale” limped along for several seasons, as did David Simon’s success d’estimes “The Wire” and “Treme.”

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