Spoilers to the most recent episode ahead.
Fifteen years after its last millennial craze, when the Y2K bug threatened to reboot the country back to its wood-and-whale-oil roots, America remains fascinated by visions of its impending collapse into ashes and dust. The most recent expression of that pulpy fantasy is HBO’s The Leftovers, novelist Tom Perrotta and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof’s imagining of the nation after a Rapture-like event.
Sensitive, inventive, and trauma-choked, the dour drama explores what it’s like to be stranded in a suddenly supernatural universe following the disappearance of 2 percent of the human race. The vanished aren’t just the Mother Teresas of the world, but seemingly randomly chosen, since innocent babies and child rapists alike number among them.
The show’s scope expands to national concerns and contracts to familial melodrama depending on the episode and it is excellent at world-building: The Leftovers flexibly accommodates stories of many different stakes and proportions. But at its heart is the Garvey family, headed by police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux), his runaway wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), and their miserable teenage daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley). Most of the action takes place in the scenic upstate New York town of Mapleton, which is just like any other small town in this America in that it’s home to an eerie new cult that’s as unsettling as The Sudden Departure was.
Adapted from Perrotta’s novel of the same name, The Leftovers has already distinguished itself by its mid-season point as one of pop culture’s smartest interpretations of the apocalypse.
Here are three things it arguably does better than any other show on television:
1. It transforms the dystopian genre.
Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Leftovers isn’t interested in the actual end of the world, but the apocalypse after the apocalypse. Survival, it turns out, is no picnic. Although physical safety is no longer a major concern for most of Mapleton’s residents, bursts of violence — either through the hunting of former pet dogs or the targeted killing of a member of the Guilty Remnant cult — makes the town teem with danger. A perfect illustration of that arbitrary, ever-present menace arrives in the third episode, when Reverend Matt Jamison’s (Christopher Eccleston) is thwarted from keeping his church from being bought out. A drive-by attacker hurls a stone at his head, landing him in a three-day coma.
Against that backdrop of indiscriminate aggression are the citizens’ efforts to rebuild society amid communal disintegration and emotional chaos. The absolute mystery of the Rapture-like event throws into relief the townspeople’s differences, rendering any communal wholeness impossible.
The show offers plenty of moving stories of individual loss, especially from the day of the disappearances, such as the young mother who turns around in the driver’s seat to find her infant son suddenly missing from his baby carrier and the suburbanite who loses her entire family to that mysterious event.
But much more poignant — perhaps because they better reflect our own reality — is the anthropological storytelling, which focuses on the town’s inability to agree on new communal rituals for mourning and memorialization.
Mayor Lucy Warburton’s (Amanda Warren) plans for a healing “Heroes Day” in the pilot, for instance, disintegrates into a mass attack on the nihilistic Guilty Remnant cult, who show up to protest the well-meaning commemoration with signs that say “STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH.”
The heartbreaking revelation at The Leftovers‘ core is that existential uncertainty and raw nerves make for a poisonous mix — there’s no way forward without consensus, and there’s no consensus when everyone is dead certain everyone else is wrong. Mapleton’s mayor and police chief simply begrudge the Guilty Remnant its existence, but interestingly, the national government seems to take a different tack entirely by virtually declaring war on all organized religious dissent through the formation of a new agency called Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco, Explosives, and Cults (AFTEC).
2. It just might be TV’s smartest drama about religion.
Religion tends to be given the short shrift by mainstream pop culture, but it forms the most engrossing facet of The Leftovers, which is largely devoted to the emergence of new beliefs and ideologies and the consequent withering of traditional churchdom.
While Reverend Jamison’s congregation gets ever smaller (why entrust your soul to a man who wasn’t good enough to get Raptured?), contemporary America’s already fractured faiths are broken into niche creeds after the Great Disappearance. The aging Gladys (Marceline Hugot), for example, ditches Reverend Jamison’s Episcopelian cathedral for the Guilty Remnant, the largely female cult led locally by Patti (Ann Dowd) and dedicated to the conviction that life is now meaningless. Having taken a vow of silence and adopted a wardrobe of only white garbs, the Guilty Remnant members look like astronauts and act like stalkers, following potential new recruits like Megan (Liv Tyler) home.
On the other side of the country is another cult led by guru Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a purveyor of magic hugs and a would-be polygamist with a statutory charge already leveled against him. In the second episode, Kevin and Laurie’s college-dropout son Tom (Chris Zylka) kills an AFTEC agent to protect Christine (Annie Q.), who’s pregnant with Holy Wayne’s child. Unlike Guilty Remnant, Holy Wayne’s sun-drenched, sex-happy ranch resembles much more closely the kind of opportunistic cults we’re used to reading about in the history books, except that this Svengali has a thing for Asian chicks.
3. Its female characters are refreshingly, unrepentantly un-nurturing.
With the exception of Holy Wayne’s harem, The Leftovers‘ female characters are surprisingly hard to categorize into the usual wife/girlfriend/daughter roles so endemic to most antihero-driven dramas. In fact, Perrotta and Lindelof have created a slew of un-nurturing girls and women who aren’t simply bitches, but have compelling reasons for being “unlikable.” That’s partly because most of the women on the show belong to Guilty Remnant, whose many mottos include the statement “No Family” — as in, no such thing as family exists.
Remnant member Laurie, for example, has abandoned her husband and two children to join the cult, and though her attachment to her clan remains, it’s easy to understand how an earth-shaking event like The Sudden Departure could spiral her into a mid-life crisis. Likewise with Megan, who continued postponing her wedding for three years until she left him altogether. Patti’s reasons for leading the Mapleton chapter of Guilty Remnant are still unknown, but Dowd has already become the show’s MVP with her serene but intimidating benevolent-dictator presence.
Outside the Remnant compound, Mayor Warburton is one of the most complex characters on the show, an officious bureaucrat constantly scheming to keep Kevin under her thumb while dating his mentally ill father on the side. Then there’s Nora (Carrie Coon), the woman whose husband, son, and daughter disappeared, who isn’t above exploiting her pitiful Disappearance story to cause small troubles at the local café.
Though television is generally kinder to actresses than film, truly complex female characters are still too few in number. That’s certainly the case for many prestige dramas, as the feminist backlash against the first season of True Detective recently demonstrated. Also rare for a primetime drama: The Leftovers‘ 50-50 split between male and female directors for its first season. (Compare those numbers to the next season of fellow HBO series Game of Thrones, which will be written and directed entirely by men in 2015.)
Whether more women behind the cameras mean better female characters is a topic of endless debate. What’s pertinent here is that The Leftovers offers a multitude of thoughtfully developed female characters as part of a larger world that’s compellingly similar to ours, yet based on a truly novel concept. If the remaining episodes of The Leftovers can continue building this heartrendingly crumbling world, the series has the chance to become one of TV’s most astute, compassionate, original dramas.