Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: HBO's THE LEFTOVERS – 'Pilot', 'Penguin One, Us Zero' & 'Two Boats and a Helicopter'

Saturday, 19 July 2014
WAYNE: All the people who stayed here and pretended it never happened; they're asleep, and they need to wake up now.
Another television series with a "big concept", this one from a showrunner behind the show that began the ongoing trend for such things; Lost's Damon Lindelof, now helping adapt Tom Perrota's novel with the author himself. The Leftovers concerns the unexplained, instantaneous disappearance of 2% of the planet's human population on 14 October; or, more accurately, the societal repercussions of such an extraordinary event on the vast majority left behind, three years later.

It's an incredibly juicy idea with overtones of the Biblical 'Rapture', and there are intriguing lines of thought in The Leftovers' first few episodes. 2% of the human population doesn't sound like much, until you calculate it represents 144 million people. This means one person in every fifty has vanished with no explanation.

While not a cataclysmic event that's plunged society into a dystopia (it's mentioned on a radio that some historical pandemics killed far more), it's enough to cause a massive metaphysical jolt. It's ultimately the manner in which everyone disappeared that's so unnerving, as the "survivors" don't quite know what to make of it. The uncertainty over the fate of those who vanished is what causes society to fracture in some intriguing ways, which The Leftovers dramatises rather well.

I particularly like creepy cult the Guilty Remnant, who've all sworn oaths of silence, dress completely in white, have taken up chain-smoking, and stalk people in an effort to recruit them as followers—which works in the case of a woman called Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler). I'm not sure what their long-term goal is, precisely, but they're a fascinating oddity—instilling fear, suspicion, and hostility from everyone, despite being outwardly pacifist.
MATT: If we can no longer separate the innocent from the guilty, everything that happened to us, all of our suffering, is meaningless.
There's also a charismatic compound leader called Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) who appears to have a Messiah complex and claims he can "hug" people better; and a local preacher called Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) who believes the disappeared were all sinners (so hands out fliers during the 'Heroes Day' celebrating the missing). His character actually dominates the third episode ("Two Boats and a Helicopter"), which was a marked improvement over the first. This is perhaps because Eccleston's a more charismatic actor than the others, and is playing a more immediately sympathetic character, but the storytelling also felt much sharper and engrossing.

Oddly enough, Matt's spotlight episode had little direct connection to the show's premise, and worked on its own merits as a tale of a damaged man trying to keep his church in the face of huge odds and personal demons. It was a very Lost-like episode in many ways, including some familiar narrative twists of expectation, and Eccleston appears to be playing a character with similarities to Lost favourite John Locke, too. A put-upon man of faith, evoking great sympathy, struggling to make sense of the world he's presented with after a tragic crash.

Unfortunately, most of the drama is filtered through Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his son Tom (Chris Zylka), and daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley). Each have their own personal journeys through the aftermath of the vanishings, trying to live ordinary lives in such a bizarre new world, where new rules of behaviour are coming into play, and everyone's trying to get a handle on what it all means. Are the people who vanished the lucky or unlucky ones? Will more people disappear soon? Will the vanished return? What did the remainder do wrong, or right, to not get taken?

There are lots of questions to answer in a show like The Leftovers, but I'm not sure the creators have any intention of answering them. Damon Lindelof became a whipping boy after the series finale of Lost failed to provide a definitive, logical explanation after six seasons of mysteries, and his defence was to say the show was always more about the characters than questions. It's down to individuals if they agree, in Lost's case, but that certainly appears to be where The Leftovers is headed. I'd be very surprised if a big answer is ever forthcoming, because the moment one arrives a lot of the tension that's driving these characters fails to exist.
MEG: So what's the tree supposed to symbolise? My old life or something?
Did I like The Leftovers? I'm undecided. I still need to see more, to get a sense of what the larger goals are. I can't in all honesty say it has me gripped, and that's frankly because a show with a mystery at its core, that you're almost certain won't be answered, is a very tough sell. The show is about people dealing with a mystery that's proving to be unfathomable, not investigating it for an answer. It's down to individual viewers if they're up for that, or will get increasingly bored.

This show is very intriguing in places, and there are fascinating ideas being presented very well, but there aren't many characters who feel exciting to watch (beyond Eccleston's preacher). It's a good exploration of an insane 'what if?' notion, with strong acting and direction. It suggests a show that could either become richer and more challenging as time passes, or exasperatingly dull and monotonous. This is hardly a cheerful concept for a drama ("misery porn"?), and I can't imagine huge numbers of people investing years of their life watching The Leftovers—especially as a large portion of its audience will always be expecting answers, and, ironically, answers are a sure-fire way to kill the drama.

written by Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrota (1.1), Damon Lindelof & Kath Lingenfelter (1.2) & Damon Lindelof & Jacqueline Hoyt (1.3) | directed by Peter Berg (1.1-1.2) & Keith Gordon (1.3) | 29 June, 6 & 13 July 2014 | HBO