Airdate: June 29, 2014
Directed by: Peter Berg
Showrunner: Damon Lindelof
Written by: Tom Perrotta (based on the novel by), Damon Lindelof (written for television by), Tom Perrotta (written for television by)
It was with a fair degree of anticipation that I sat down tonight to watch the premiere episode of The Leftovers. Despite a name that sounds a lot like my mother’s meatloaf (love ya mom!), the fact that this is Damon Lindelof’s return to television is kind of a big deal – I’d give the show a chance even if he named it Lost. In some sense, this show is really a companion for his first show – on that one, we dealt with those that were lost – here, we follow those that are left behind. Different perspectives, different stories. And overall, a decent opening to HBO’s new summer series.
<<Spoiler Alert: This review of The Leftovers Season 1, Episode 1 “Pilot” will include minor spoilers and plot points. Warning for language.>>
As you might expect of a pilot episode, the primary focus of tonight was backstory. Events are shown on the day, October 14th, when two percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared. Flash forward three years, and we get to see the effects these missing people have had on those who remain.
The story is set in Mapleton, small town America at its best. It focuses on Chief of Police Kevin Garvey [Justin Theroux] and his family. He didn’t lose anyone to the disappearances – not directly. However, only his daughter, Jill [Margaret Qualley] remains at home with him. His son, Tom [Chris Zylka], is part of some mysterious cult surrounding a man named Wayne [Paterson Joseph], and his wife, Laurie [Amy Brenneman], has joined another cult named the Guilty Remnant, or GR. Tom’s across the country somewhere (it looks like Arizona), and Laurie’s right there in Mapleton, but is completely inaccessible to either Kevin or his daughter.
Other focus – or potential focus – characters appear to be the Mayor of Mapleton, Lucy Warburton [Amanda Warren], a young woman named Meg Abbott [Liv Taylor] who is preparing for her wedding, and Matt Jamison [Christopher Eccleston], a man who has made it his mission to expose the disappeared as imperfect human beings. However, it is definitely Kevin who will be the glue that keeps the show together, even if he can’t keep his own family under one roof.
Being a Lindelof show, there is some heavy-duty symbolism and repetitive motifs that I suspect will make further appearances as the show continues. For example, the cult to which Laurie belongs has a few key rules: everyone smokes (kind of a death worship thing going on), no one speaks, and they all wear white. What motivates them exactly? It seems to be a kind of mourning for the lost, but also an attempt to awaken others to their own culpability. I guess we could call it a guilt cult, more than anything. They are generally non-violent, and do come in as the focus for a lot of anger, especially when they interrupt a rally honoring the missing. A nice touch: when we get a panning shot inside one of the cult’s houses, we see a bunch of empty picture frames atop the mantle, reflecting those that have been lost.
Another motif is the repeated appearance of a young stag. While Kevin does at times take on the looke of a deer in the headlights himself, I think the deer is intended more to represent the breakdown of civil society as all expectations are thrown out. The deer appears three times: once on the lawn of a house he’s visiting, once in a dream sequence where he runs the deer down accidentally, and once on the road, where it is run down by a pack of wild dogs. There’s a fourth potential deer-related moment, too, when Kevin comes downstairs to find his kitchen absolutely trashed, and scuff marks everywhere that look very similar to deer hoof marks.
The dogs that kill the deer are another symbol, again of the social order imploding. The episode begins with Kevin stopping on a jog to try to cajole a large dog into approaching. The dog is hesitant, and just as it gets close, a shot rings out – a man in a blue pick-up truck gets back in and drives away before Kevin can stop him. Later, this same man appears at a bar, and then in the final scene, where he tells Kevin, “These aren’t our dogs.” The two men end up putting down the dogs. The point here is that events are beyond the chief’s control: he can’t prevent the GR from harassing people and stopping riots; he can’t bring the missing back; and he can’t even get his own wife or son to leave their respective cults. A lack of control is a strong central theme that nearly every scene and interaction comes back to.
This is, perhaps, best exemplified by a party Kevin’s daughter Jill goes to. The kids, focused entirely in the moment, play a rather extreme version of spin the bottle that includes things as innocuous as “Hug,” but ranges right up to “Fuck,” “Burn,” and “Choke.” Jill’s best friend Aimee [Emily Meade] is told to have sex with the boy Jill likes, and neither seems particularly fazed (although Aimee offers to opt out). Jill is later told to choke another young man, and she lies beside him, choking him as he masturbates. Death, love, and sex are intrinsically tied together for these young people. Lindelof appears to be answering the question of how people would react to the loss of two percent of the world’s population by suggesting that the majority would become a bunch of death-worshipping, guilt-ridden nihilists.
The Wayne/Tom storyline is perhaps the most mysterious. It’s unclear what, or who, Wayne is exactly, but people are willing to follow him – and if Tom’s reaction is any indication, people are afraid of him as well. Kevin calls Tom twice, and we get the sense this is a regular thing, but Tom ignores the call. He’s a kind of courier for Wayne’s group, and we see him bring in a Texas congressman whom he calls “burdened.” The congressman asks if Wayne is “the real deal,” to which Tom replies in the affirmative. We don’t, however, get to find out what this “real deal” is all about – at least not tonight. Wayne is played with a fine degree of fanaticism and menace, as he tells Tom to keep his hands off a young woman at the ranch (Christine, played by Annie Q) with whom he’s smitten. He then tells Tom about dreams he’s had of his own missing son, and that things are about to change: “Grace period’s over, Tom. Time to go to work.”
There are lighter moments in the show, something that is probably necessary in such a dark and brooding atmosphere. The most humorous was when Kevin was sitting at a bar, and the television is listing off famous people among the lost. Names like Jennifer Lopez, Dick Cheney, Shaquille O’Neal, Pope Benedict XVI, and Gary Busey grace the screen. Kevin asks the bartender to shut the TV off, and the bartender comments, “Now the Pope I can understand, but Gary Busey?” He’s right – there’s no rhyme nor reason to the disappearances as yet, but if the pilot is any indication, The Leftovers will be worth the time investment to find out what really happened.
Steve’s Grade: B-
A decent series premiere that shows enough promise to bring viewers back for future weeks. A fair bit of violence, drug use, and nudity (mostly male), so this is definitely not one for the kids.