To those in the know, the combination of acclaimed author Tom Perrotta and writer Damon Lindelof is most likely a giant flashing red beacon warning those seeking cleanly wrapped-up narratives to flee far away.
Perrotta’s most popular recent novels (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, and The Leftovers) all excel in early plotting and character development. His characters feel like someone he’d met while sitting on the sidelines of a child’s soccer game or in the carpool line at school. Yet, the stories in which he interweaves them never seem to build to a traditional conclusion. They simply end, resolving perhaps the most pressing central conflict but leaving readers hanging in mid-air. He has concluded so many novels that way that I’m convinced the destination is not his concern. It’s the journey that enthralls him.
Which makes him a curious match with Damon Lindelof, the infamous writer who captured the obsession of millions in the labyrinthine mythology of ABC’s Lost only to abandon much of it in the series finale. The conclusion to the Emmy-winning series incurred such wrath on the Internet that Lindelof very publically suffered a near nervous breakdown. Fans who’d spent countless hours pouring through Darma Initiative videos and screen captures of blueprints felt betrayed at the show’s sentimental and non-mythological ending. Lindelof was charged in the public eye with failing to stick the landing, the most difficult aspect of any popular TV show.
So, naturally, it just seems like a great idea to bring these two together…
Intriguing but near-impenetrable due to its pervasive grimness, HBO’s The Leftovers deals with the aftermath of a cataclysmic non-event where 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears into thin air. In this world, October 14 (the date of the mass disappearance) has become the new September 11, and it’s clear, judging from the pilot, that the parallels are fully intentional.
Directed by Peter Berg, the pilot’s opening is remarkable. A harried mother with a busted washing machine has taken her crying infant son to a laundromat. There, she chats to someone on her cell phone while the child wails loudly, incurring stares from those nearby. As she loads the screaming child into the car, you get the sense that she, as well as the audience, begs for just a moment of silence. That the child’s cries would, if for just a moment, suddenly stop.
And then, it does.
Silence fills the car, and it’s about 15 seconds before the mother realizes there are no more screams. As she steps out of the car, others nearby begin to experience trauma of their own. A boy shouts for his father who had been pushing a now driverless shopping cart. People run around screaming. Cars suddenly crash into each other. Something has happened. But what?
The remainder of the pilot flashes forward three years and introduces us to the central characters, largely revolving around the broken-down Garvey family. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the local chief of police who needs more order at home than in the town he reportedly protects. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has abandoned her family post October 14 and joined the local chapter of a national cult called the Guilty Remnant who proclaim their faith by stalking select town members and by chain smoking. The children, Jill and Tom, have adopted diametrically opposed reactions to the trauma. Tom, clearly the more religious-minded of the two, has dropped out of college and joined up with a quasi-religious sect led by a man named Holy Wayne. Jill takes on the stereotypical role of the disaffected teenager, but enhances it by failing to even a single moment of levity or pleasure in the entire pilot. She’s wandering through post-October 14 life, violently lashing out at a classmate during field hockey with the same lack of emotion she employs while giving a hand job at a party.
This is not light stuff we’re dealing with.
Berg does a good job of pacing the pilot episode and finding one or two quiet moments of real beauty before ripping them away (much like the event ripped away 2 percent of the population), but this start to a 10-episode series sets an undeniably and almost oppressively grim tone. It is a tone that most reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, a brilliant film that also featured characters abandoned and adrift on a sea of hopelessness.
In The Leftovers, no one wants to move on from the event because life will seemingly never be the same. There is no order and no sense that anyone really gives a shit about anything anymore. This depressing tone is best conveyed in two shattering moments: the sudden execution of a lost dog and the brutal evisceration of a deer by a pack of wild dogs. These moments are harsh and shocking. Personally, they provided much more gravity and were more difficult to watch than any of the human moments.
Perhaps that stems from having read the novel upon which the series is based. I come into the show knowing what to expect, and, while I may not remember all the details exactly (I did experience a few moments of “Oohhh, I know what happens to you”), I do remember how the novel ends. While avoiding any spoilers here, I will say that those looking to this series as any kind of exploration of supernatural themes because of Lindelof’s background are going to be severely disappointed.
In the novel, October 14 is just a springboard for an examination of how suburbia reacts to such an event. It explores religious faith, atheism, teen angst, and many other themes with equal devotion, but it avoids conversation around The Why and The How of the event. I have no idea how closely the series will adhere to the tone of the novel, but I think viewers will have a difficult time coming back week after week for a story with no end.
I think Lost burned them too badly for that.