Created by Damon Lindelof of Lost and adapted from the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, HBO's new series The Leftovers is set in a world where the population is trying to "make sense of shit that doesn't make sense." On October 14th of an unknown year, a Rapture-like event known as "The Departure" occurs in which 2 percent of the world's population (140 million people) disappear. Both science and religion fail to provide any answers and there is no pattern to the disappearances, with good and bad and Christian and non-Christian among those missing.
The Leftovers is not really about the mystery at the crux of the story or even religion per se. It's about how people and society react to loss and disaster. Follow beneath the fold for more.
From Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix:
Tom Perrotta: I was writing about the culture war in "The Abstinence Teacher" and reading and thinking about evangelical culture. And the fact is, tens of thousands of Americans believe that the Rapture is going to happen in their lifetime. Because I'm not especially religious, my first impulse is to think that's really odd, or even quaint. But then over time, I started to think, 'Well, what if it did happen?' That to me is the better writerly question: not to satirize the Rapture or people who believe in it, but just to imagine how would I respond to that? I wasn't interested in satirizing Christianity, but the idea got lodged in my head. And then I tweaked it by making it random, rather than the Christian Rapture, so that it was as much of a challenge to Christians as it was to non-believers. And once I did that in my own mind, it started to seem like a really interesting existential allegory.Human beings crave certainty. We want to understand something, or we want to believe that we understand it. Especially for the big questions like why are we here? What happens when we die? Is there any meaning to life? Some people find that meaning in love and sex. Some people find it at the bottom of a bottle. And some people find it in religion and personal philosophy.
Religion and spirituality can give someone purpose and comfort, and an atheism that's centered on empiricism provides logical answers and a rational universe that adheres to fundamental tenets. So much of life is experiences filled with ambiguities that lead to self-doubt and can make you feel like a lost soul adrift at sea. Whether you believe there's a higher power that cares about us, or that we live a life governed by science alone and our lives are our own to do with what we can before we become worm food, both spirituality and atheism can provide something to hold on to during those times. Even in nothingness, there is a contentment. It might not be an answer you like, but it's still an answer.
The Leftovers is a story in which all of these approaches have failed.
Given some of the backlash Lindelof has received for the resolution of Lost, both Lindelof and Perrotta have been clear in interviews that this is not a show about mysteries. In fact, the series may never reveal the source of the disappearances. The Leftovers is about characters dealing with something that's inexplicable. And to that end, this is an interesting but very bleak show. Since it's predicated on the characters not having answers, there's a despair to its tone.
- Proof of nothing: The disappearances are not proof that God exists, since for all the characters know it could have been aliens, monsters from another dimension or some natural freak occurrence that happened. And as stated at the beginning of the pilot, there have been worse disasters and pandemics that have claimed many more lives in human history. However, the social implications of the disappearances are much more far reaching. If the characters believe the disappearances are the work of God, then God couldn't have given a bigger "Fuck You" to the world and the people left behind. If it's not the work of God, then there exists some unknowable force that could return at any time, and the world has to live under that threat from here on.
- Among those that disappeared: Pope Benedict XVI, Jennifer Lopez, Anthony Bourdain, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Busey are no longer with us.
- Post-tragedy world: Peter Berg directed the first two episodes, and the tone and the way many of the scenes are shot is very reminiscent of the aftermath of recent tragedies. The victims automatically become "heroes" and the people unaffected by the tragedy use the victims' memories as an excuse and crutch to justify their own actions, rightly or wrongly. More than three-thousand people died in the September 11th attacks, and there were proclamations the world would never be the same. Political philosophies were divided into pre and post-9-11 dogma. But those same kind of sentiments were uttered after Hurricane Katrina and the Newtown shootings as well. In this story, 140 million men, women and children have disappeared without any explanation, but the reaction is similar. For some people it would be a life-changing event that upends their worldview and they'll seek new answers. But for most of society, as time goes on life goes on. Things will change some, and may never go back to the way they were again. But by and large, people will go back to fighting over trivial things. People go back to fucking. And people go back to buying cheeseburgers at McDonald's.
- New religions rise up: The lead character of the series is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who's the chief of police in Mapleton. Garvey attempts to maintain some semblance of normalcy, but knows things aren't normal. He admonishes Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) to stop, when Jamison tries to emphatically persuade victims families that this is not the Rapture. Garvey's daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is in high school, but finds life and its experiences devoid of feeling. Garvey's wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) left the family to join a growing cult named the Guilty Remnant. Cult members don't speak, wear all white, chain smoke and follow victims' families in order to remind them of their lost family members constantly. The group targets one such family member, Meg (Liv Tyler), and begins to convert her. Garvey's estranged son Tom (Chris Zylka) has dropped out of college to follow a guru named Wayne who claims to know the purpose of the disappearances and whose counsel can unburden people of their troubles, including a United States Congressman. Both Laurie and Tom are searching for answers in the wake of this event, and that has left Kevin and Jill grieving the destruction of their family.
From Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post:
On the anniversary of the disappearance, members of the Guilty Remnant disrupt a commemoration, holding up signs that spell out “Stop Wasting Your Breath,” the response is cruelly human-scale. A man puts down his sign and walks toward the cult members. A younger woman pushes an older woman holding up one of the signs. Another woman hits a cult member with a bottle. These people have no power beyond that supplied by their rage and grief, and no real weapons, but the damage they do to their neighbors cuts deeper than more grandiose displays of violence.
“We are the living reminders,” reads a Guilty Remnant slogan painted above the sink in one of the cult’s houses. “The Leftovers” stands as testimony to how valuable it can be to focus on everyday things and everyday people.
- Stray dogs at the mercy of others: The pilot begins and ends with stray dogs being shot, with the dogs being an abstract for those that were lost. As the episode begins, Kevin is running and sees a stray dog in his path. Suddenly Dean (Michael Gaston) shoots the dog for seemingly no reason. If the disappearances are the work of God or some other higher power, then he's a capricious shepherd that does terrifying things without consideration or explanation. Both Kevin and his daughter want to believe the dog's life had meaning. Kevin couldn't leave it on the road and is enraged by the dog's death. And Jill can't just leave the dog in the trunk of the car, needs to bury it and offer the dog some blessing. But when confronted with the actual reason why Dean shot the dog, it provides no solace to Kevin.