Cast: Justin Theroux (“Mulholland Dr.,” “American Psycho,” Mr. Jennifer Aniston), Amy Brenneman (“Heat,” “Private Practice”), Christopher Eccleston (“28 Days Later,” “Dr. Who”), Liv Tyler (“The Lord of the Rings”)
Air-date, time: The pilot episode airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO
The premise: When 2% of the world’s population abruptly disappears without explanation, the world struggles to come to terms with what happened. Three years later, after what people have dubbed The Sudden Departure, “The Leftovers” is the story of those who were left behind.
Focusing on the Garvey family, “The Leftovers” is set in the fictional New York town of Mapleton. Kevin Garvey (Theroux), the town’s chief of police and father of two, is trying to maintain some sense of normalcy. While Kevin and his rebellious daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), try to go back to the way things used to be, Kevin’s son Tom (Chris Zylka), chooses a different course of action. At the same time, Kevin is faced with the conflict between the townspeople of Mapleton and the Guilty Remnant, a cult-like group that offers an escape for residents looking for a refuge.
“The Leftovers” is based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name. Damon Lindelof (Emmy winner for “Lost”), Perrotta, Peter Berg (director of “Friday Night Lights,” “Lone Survivor,” “Battleship”) and Sarah Aubrey are executive producers. Lindelof also serves as showrunner. The show has a 10-episode season.
Highs: Instead of wordy exposition filling in the blanks, “The Leftovers” starts by giving viewers snippets of different characters using minimal dialogue. This is a bit confusing because most of the backstory is initially excluded. Some will find this disorienting but in the first couple of episodes I enjoyed feeling like one of the people in the town, just as perplexed as they are about the events that are transpiring. Showrunner Damon Lindelhof is letting viewers figure things out on their own and won’t hold your hand.
Mapleton is an odd but intriguing place. They’ve suffered an incredible tragedy but there are no zombies or strange viruses to blame. Life has returned to “normal” in the three years after the Departure but things certainly aren’t the same. Teens are acting more extreme. Townspeople are on edge but we’re not sure if it’s because they’ve been left behind or because no one has any idea why the Departure happened. Then there’s the Guilty Remnant. They’re an odd group – non-violent, never speak, dress in white and constantly smoke cigarettes. There’s definitely a lot more going on than it seems.
Lows: While trusting in an audiences’ intelligence is a good thing, a show refusing to give viewers answers to its own questions is an exercise in frustration. There are just too many secrets without any hint of resolution. ‘The Leftovers” starts as a thought-provoking mystery but turns into a novel with missing pages.
Why would anyone join the Guilty Remnant in the first place and why do they act the way they do? Why do some characters have trippy dreams with a mystical, hidden meaning and others don’t? And what do those dreams mean? Why did everyone disappear? How come there are no likeable characters and why is Justin Theroux’s Chief Garvey such a jerk? He abuses his power, is a horrible father and has a bad temper. There’s no reason to root for him, no matter how artsy the character is portrayed as, and for that matter no reason to root for anyone else either.
The show struggles to juggle its multiple storylines. Unlike its HBO brother “Game of Thrones,” “The Leftovers” can seemingly only handle one or two plot points at a time. This creates a lack of continuity and an inability to follow story arcs. Characters will disappear for long stretches of time, sometimes for multiple episodes. When you can’t keep track of what’s going on, you’ll quickly start to lose interest. Sadly, all of these issues lead to the waste of some very good actors.
Grade: (C-): After watching almost half a season of “The Leftovers” (I viewed episodes one, two, three and five. Episode four was not made available to critics.) I still didn’t have a vested interested in any character and became fatigued from a plot that went in circles. Perhaps even worse, showrunner Lindelof has even stated in interviews that the central mystery of the show, why everyone disappeared, will never be explained. While there were parts I enjoyed and I appreciated the attempts to occasionally lighten the mood (there’s a news clip in episode 1 showing that Jennifer Lopez, Shaquille O’Neal and Gary Busey were a few of the celebs that vanished), “The Leftovers” still left a bad taste in my mouth.