The Leftovers Recap, S01E01

I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Leftovers, so I thought I’d write down my reactions as I went through it.

Justin Theroux’s torso is the only thing in this show that definitively wants you to watch it. The rest? Tough sledding. The pilot opens with a baby wailing for a minute and a half. It thankfully stops, but the shrieking baton is swiftly picked up by the baby’s horrified mother when she discovers he’s not been pacified, but rather disappeared. In the next scene we see a handsome, squinty Australian cattle dog get shot in closeup. Fair enough, the tone is set. What’s the show about?

The Leftovers is set in a small town in New York, three years after the rapture, and the townsfolk are in major distress. As an example, let’s do roll call for the Garvey family, our protagonists. Kevin? Elbowing family pictures on the stairwell. Jill? Crying as she chokes a masturbating school chum. Laurie? Chain-smoking and mutely stalking Liv Tyler. Tom? Looking like Tim Riggins, screaming at the bottom of a pool.

They’re not the only ones under pressure. Kevin — played by Justin Theroux, the world’s least likely police chief — warns the mayor while they’re planning a three-year remembrance for the rapture: this town is ready to explode. And sure enough, a brawl breaks out the next day when a cult named the Guilty Remnant appears to rain on the parade. (The Guilty Remnant is an early contender for the plot element I’ll care least about. Also sounds like the name of a Japanese fighting game.)

This emotional pressure cooker is good for drama, but I’m skeptical that the population at large would have anything like the metaphysical curiosity to be so undone by a 2% dip in the population. These teens in Mapleton are partying like the Red Army is about to take the city. But we’re talking about one in fifty; I think the entire litany of the lost was rattled off by a couple girl scouts in a little over a minute. The argument, I suppose, is that the lack of answers or an apparent pattern to the disappearances is preventing everyone from achieving closure. I’m dubious. On the other hand, if Damon Lindelof believes that people can be driven to madness by ambiguity, I can’t fault him: he did write on Lost.

I feel a little bad immediately going behind the curtain to point out Lindelof, because by all accounts (ie one podcast I listened to that had him on as a guest) he’s a thoughtful, charming, and self-effacing guy, who took an absolute beating over that show… but I think to understand this show you have to keep in mind who’s writing it.

If you look at the plots introduced in the pilot — I’m thinking in particular of the standard-issue moody teenage daughter — it makes total sense that there’s two middle-aged guys writing this show, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta. They’re just two of a generation writing these kinds of stories right now. Relatively mundane contexts are supercharged by the energy of the midlife crises they are working so hard to sublimate through fiction. The panic, as far as I can tell, can be summed up by this thought: my kids won’t get to bike around the neighborhood like I did when I was growing up. The pilot is simmering with paternal neuroses. Some of these fears include: breakdown of social order and traditional sources of authority (cf Kevin’s potentially demented father), the unsettling encroachment of technology (cf the world’s most aggressive spin the bottle app), and wives drifting from the center of the domestic context (cf Laurie, who’s taking a vow of silence she’s so done with it).

All that said, I liked quite a few parts of this first episode. I liked Theroux’s pathological tetchiness, Carrie Coon’s monologue (which was simultaneously gutting and no-muss-no-fuss), the heightened emotional pitch, and the magical realism.

One last note on magical realism: you get one and only one “man communes with wild animal” moment per season, and they had two just in the pilot. I will say, though, having that deer then get savaged by feral dogs, and then those dogs get liquidated with extreme prejudice by an anguished police chief, was something else.

(I’m not sure how many “character peacefully driving has to slam on their brakes” you’re allotted, but they’ve certainly over budget on that already.)