In the new HBO series The Leftovers, a rapture-like event sweeps away 2 per cent of the world's population, some 140 million people. Adapted from the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name, The Leftovers is set in the fictional New York suburb of Mapleton, three years after the "Sudden Departure," as it has come to be called.
Premiering on Sunday, The Leftovers is one more in a string of recent series in which dead people reappear to make their loved ones feel guilty. In the spring, ABC premiered Resurrection, an hour-long drama centred on a Missouri town plunged into confusion when the deceased re-emerge just as they were before they died. It's similar but unrelated to the French series The Returned, about a small town in the mountains besieged by the random appearances of people long since dead. That program aired its terrific first season on SundanceTV last year, and a U.S. adaptation is in the works.
While the French series was a creamy blend of supernatural mystery and gorgeous, eerie images, The Leftovers is a pretentious slog. The characters left behind on The Leftovers have different theories as to what happened three years earlier on Oct. 14, but they're all asking the same question: Why them and not us?
The problem is, they're all literally asking that question, over and over again, throughout the first handful of episodes. In the pilot episode, the town is preparing for the first "Heroes Day" to commemorate those who disappeared. Our protagonist is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), Mapleton's police chief, whose family has been torn apart by the Oct. 14 events: His son dropped out of college to join a cult led by a man named Holy Wayne (the wonderfully creepy Paterson Joseph), and Kevin's wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), left home for the local chapter of another cult-ish group, the Guilty Remnant, whose members wear white, chain-smoke cigarettes and don't speak a word.
I haven't read the book, but Perrotta and his co-creator Damon Lindelof (who also co-created Lost) don't seem to have much faith in their viewers. The dialogue is clunky; voices blare out of car radios and TV screens, saying things like, "It was meaningless and arbitrary," and, "They're gone, but so much of them is still here."
The rest isn't any more subtle. Laurie wakes up on a mattress on a crowded floor, lights up, and brushes her teeth in front of a wall emblazoned with the words "We are all living reminders." In the kitchen, another sign reminds the members, "We don't smoke for enjoyment. We smoke to proclaim our faith." They show up in front of people's homes, smoking and squinting in silent judgment. (Their leader is played by the excellent Ann Dowd, a master squinter.)
When the town's gutsy mayor (Amanda Warren) calls a meeting to discuss Heroes Day, Kevin insists Guilty Remnant will show up and ruin the event. "You don't even know who they are," he tells her. "We know who they were," she replies, but the viewer sure doesn't. The characters are rolling paper-thin, and rather than flesh them out, the show relies on a series of premium-cable clichés: Kevin's daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is a ball of angst, a Troubled Teen with milky-white skin and pouting red lips. Her best friend, played by Emily Meade, is a rip-off of Mena Suvari's character in American Beauty, all long blonde waves and side-boob. "You're doing your best," she tells Kevin, hovering over him at his dining room table.
When she and Jill go to a Wild Teen Party, it's shot like a strip-club scene, the camera lingering over smooth, red-lit body parts as loud music pounds. The pilot also features the requisite scene of a guy diving into a pool and screaming underwater while the plinking piano score yanks on our heartstrings as hard as it can.
According to Lindelof, The Leftovers is supposed to examine the lives of those left behind, and how the Great Departure has changed them. But it's not really about people – it's about rival factions, each one standing in for a different philosophy of life and death, like a high-school morality play. The first episode at least contains slivers of dark humour: A radio DJ dedicates a song to a man who "lost his lovely Elise at the Cracker Pickle three years ago today. Elise, we don't know where you are, but we sure hope there's pickles up there."
These flashes of humour are few and far between, so we're left with a thick cloud of melancholy and a show that needlessly manipulates its viewers. It's heavy and miserable, like walking in wet clothes. I love a good wallow as much as the next mope, but c'mon. It's summer.