Is it any wonder that the first series from Damon Lindelof since Lost, the show that made his name and reputation, is all about the unbearable horror that is living under an unsolvable mystery? In The Leftovers, every single character lives with an unknowable at the center of their universe; a single, strange event that either proves the existence of God or disproves it—or suggests that even if he does exist, he’s as terrifying and random as everything else. And there will never be an answer. There can’t be.
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (who shares a co-creator credit with Lindelof and co-writes a couple of episodes), The Leftovers is some of the most desolate, despairing television on air. It’s also frequently brilliant, using the central hook of Perrotta’s book not as a pivot into genre fiction but as a pivot into something like a modern version of medieval mystery plays. But instead of God at the center of the story, there’s uncertainty, a Schrödinger’s cat the characters would desperately like to observe, if only they could force the box to open and provide them with answers.
In the series, as in Perrotta’s novel, an unexplained event causes 2 percent of the world’s population to disappear one crisp October day. It’s an event very like the Christian rapture, except there’s no rhyme or reason to those taken. It’s just as likely for sinners and innocents to be caught up. The series opens with a riveting depiction of that day, in which director Peter Berg, in one fluid camera movement, suggests the panic of a mother suddenly realizing her baby is no longer there, before leaping three years into the future, when both science and religion have essentially given up on trying to explain what happened, and others are hoping to move on with their lives. Yet those attempts to forget are stymied at every turn, sometimes just by a physical reminder of those disappeared—and sometimes by factions actively trying to force humanity to remember.
Above all, The Leftovers is a supremely constructed work of imagination, all the more remarkable for largely taking place in a variation on our day-to-day reality. Much of this stems from the novel, but in adapting it for television, Perrotta and Lindelof have smartly fleshed out these ideas—filled with bizarre cults and a general sense of the world returning to some primitive state—in ways that nicely suggest the reality of having to live in this world, day after day, without offering up tons of unnecessary exposition. With the help of Berg’s keen visual sense (and later episode directors include heavy hitters like Lesli Linka Glatter and Mimi Leder), the two craft an experience that is, above all else, driven by images, rather than dialogue. The Leftovers isn’t afraid of silence. It knows that’s sometimes where the most powerful emotions lurk.
The show’s structure is also thrilling. After the pilot—which darts and weaves gracefully among all of the show’s characters, drawing them into the same tapestry—subsequent episodes deepen and build upon story threads and relationships established in that pilot, while still largely working as stand-alones. The Leftovers is serialized, but not really. Its stunning third episode, for instance, works almost as a very short feature film. Following its plot requires only the most cursory knowledge of the show’s premise. Even without that, the travails of its central character, the Rev. Matt Jamison (played by Christopher Eccleston) as a walking wound that God can’t help pouring salt into, would be so universal as to be immediately understandable to anyone. Other characters in the ensemble only appear when needed, and episodes tell whole stories with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends. It’s here that Lindelof’s Lost experience is most pronounced, as that was another series where a large number of smaller stories were meant to add up to a much bigger one.
None of this would work without compelling characters. Fortunately, The Leftovers has bunches of them. As central figure Police Chief Kevin Garvey, Justin Theroux creates a man who views his mission to protect and defend less as a calling and more as a burden. (Lost fans may note how close this can make him to that show’s Jack—particularly once he meets up with Michael Gaston, playing a mysterious, hulking bald man who likes hunting.) Carrie Coon quickly sketches Nora, a woman who lost her entire family on the day of disappearance, while Liv Tyler’s Meg goes through strange, terrifying things once she’s targeted by a local religious group. The series even finds great use for the obligatory teenage daughter character in Margaret Qualley’s Jill Garvey, through whom much of the show’s very dry, very mordant sense of humor runs. In these characters and many, many others, the viewer is reminded of both writers’ skill at quickly suggesting characters through a few well-chosen gestures or even words, then filling in greater detail later. (For instance, notice how much information is conveyed by the choice to have Kevin refer to himself as “daddy” in the voicemails he frequently leaves for his absent, twentysomething son.)
By far the show’s most original, fascinating element is its portrayal of the Guilty Remnant, a cult that actively seeks to remind those left behind of ones who were lost, seemingly by becoming absent themselves. The members don’t speak, communicating only via the written word. They chain smoke. They wear all white. And their numbers are growing rapidly. Here, the story centers on Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and Patti (Ann Dowd), two members of different station within the group. The series trusts viewers to simply go with the strangeness, to make the necessary connections and understand what’s going on. It helps that Brenneman and Dowd are both giving such terrific—and vastly different—performances.
The Leftovers is still young enough to have some growing pains. There’s material centered on yet another cult (based around a mysterious figure named Wayne) that feels too loosely connected to everything else, and the show can occasionally seem too in love with being grim just for being grim. (There’s one twist in the third episode that would seem relentlessly over the top in its misery if the show didn’t simply grit its teeth and commit.) But on the whole, it’s elegiac, ingenious television, unlike anything else on the air. It has elements of mystery, like Lost, and it has elements of satire, like Perrotta’s novels, but it’s also its own thing, a weird art film and character piece that also features large packs of feral dogs running wild. It’s a show where the flashbacks—another Lost standby—only come in tiny, seconds-long spurts of pain, because the past may be somewhere characters long to return to, but it’s also a completely different country, a before only made real by the shadow it casts on the wall.