Twelve years after the premiere of “The Wire” and the dawn of an apparent golden age of television, the trappings of the prestige cable drama have become familiar. HBO’s “The Leftovers,” premiering tonight, checks them off neatly: there’s an intriguing premise, a multitude of montages, and an auteur-like showrunner (Damon Lindelof, co-creator of “Lost”). But the show’s first episode is a disappointingly smug affair that boasts too many clichés in its cast of characters, limiting the emotional wallop the show obviously hopes it will have on its audience.
Then again, this could simply be a weak first offering. That interesting premise – that one October 14 three years prior, two percent of the world’s population mysteriously disappeared – is a doozy, and one adapted from the Tom Perrotta (“Election,” “Little Children”) novel of the same name. With the obvious comparison to the Rapture, the events of October 14 are a welcome opportunity to explore what an otherworldly disaster might mean in an otherwise secular world.
It’s set in the suburb of Mapleton, and focuses on Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), a police chief whose brusque nature masks the sorrow he feels over his broken family. (Interestingly, Kevin’s apparently a local businessman, not police officer, in the original. Why the change?) Though he hasn’t lost anyone directly to October 14, his family has splintered with the loss of wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) to a local cult, along with his son Tom (Chris Zylka) to another cult.
Living with Kevin is his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), a character who continues society’s grand tradition of objectifying teenage girls. Jill doesn’t have much of a personality at this point; so far we know she’s sad (because of Laurie), she gets her aggression out via field hockey (you and the cast of Gossip Girl, kid), and she’s less sexualized than her blonde friend but still enough so that she performs acts on teenage boys without expecting any sort of reciprocation or displaying any kind of agency. Speaking of which, what kind of crazy iPhone app is that Spin the Bottle game? It’s basically the rainbow party urban myth, but more Millennial.
Rounding out the cast is Liv Tyler, as a bride-to-be who sounds like she’s on a lot of Xanax, and a whole bunch of religious Southerners, religious Southern congressmen, and bow tie bedecked scientists who argue with the religious Southern congressmen on C-SPAN. The cults, of which there are so far two, are the most interesting part of the episode, and hopefully they’ll shake everyone out of these neat little boxes as the series continues.
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Laurie, Kevin’s estranged wife, is living in what seems to be the less sexually predatory of the two. They’re called the Guilty Remnant, and they wear all white, live in a commune on a Mapleton cul de sac, refuse to speak, and follow people around while staring and smoking. Liv Tyler, whose character is named Meg, ends up joining the GR at the episode’s end, after Laurie and the woman who seems to run the GR follow her. (The shot in which they stand outside of Meg’s house is an eerie visual callback to “The Strangers,” another movie filled with scenes of people watching Liv Tyler from her front yard.)
“We Are Living Reminders”
Speaking of strangers, Tom, the prodigal son, is reading some Camus back at his own compound (eye roll). His cult is definitely scarier, as it is focused on a cult of personality (Holy Wayne, played by Paterson Joseph) who claims mystical powers and surrounds himself with a group of young, possibly underage, girls. Tom, who dropped out of college to start working as a driver for this group, also has the most unintentionally hilarious scene of this episode in which, during one of the series’ many montages, he jumps into a pool and screams underwater while stirring cello music plays. It’s very angst-ridden.
The climax of the episode happens on this year’s October 14, during a parade and ceremony dedicated to honoring the disappeared. Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), a local Mapleton resident, appears to have lost her entire family, consisting of her two young children and her husband (it’s never fully explained), and gives a speech about this. The mayor, who previously warred with Kevin over this ceremony, also gives a speech. The GR show up to cause trouble and hold up a sign that reads “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH,” and it turns out that Kevin’s concerns over the ceremony were well-founded: all hell breaks loose.
Another montage happens, this time with the town’s residents attacking the GR, the GR falling down in what appears to be some kind of non-violent protest (or shock), and the police getting in between the two groups and breaking out the police horses, which seem a little unnecessary (the crowd isn’t that large). Jill stares angrily at her father, contemplating the dead dog she found in his car trunk the night before and buried with two weird guys that drive a Prius. (Don’t worry, the car brand is mentioned by another character.) Her father looks sad and stressed out, possibly because he is contemplating the dead dog that was shot in front of him by a mysterious stranger the day before, opening the episode, and possibly because sad and stressed out seem to be the general mood of the series.
Did Kevin do something to cause Laurie and Tom’s cult-joining? After the day’s violence, sitting in a bar, he has a brief flashback to some forceful sex with a woman who doesn’t look like his wife when asked where he was on the original October 14. Immediately after, he drives out to the GR’s headquarters, where he’s refused and turned away. Something about his character feels uneasy. We’ll see if Kevin, and the rest of the show’s characters, is given some depth in the episodes to come.