When millions of people go missing worldwide, a small New York town divides over how best to deal
Credit: Paul Schiraldi

My screener for the series premiere of The Leftovers didn’t include an opening-credits sequence. Maybe Peter Berg’s post-Rapture drama is the kind of show that forgoes such convention, and if so, just cue up REM’s “Everybody Hurts” to get in the mood properly.

A distracted woman in the laundromat parking lot straps her crying baby into the car-seat and talks on the phone as he howls. The child is upset, and then—maybe—his eyes flicker toward something up in the heavens. Another frightened scream, and then silence. Sam is gone, instantaneously, without a trace. While the panicked mother, Nora (Carrie Coon), screams for help, other nearby people are facing the same inexplicable occurrence: A boy yells for his father as the shopping cart he had been pushing rolls into a parked car and a speeding car—presumably now driverless—slams into another.

When we drop in on the hamlet of Mapleton, New York, it’s three years after that unexplained global event in which 2 percent of the population—140 million people—instantly disappeared into thin air on Oct. 14. It was a completely random harvest that zapped both Salman Rushdie and Shaquille O’Neal, the pope and Gary Busey, babies and, apparently, child-beaters.

No one knows what happened. The government’s panel of scientists and religious experts have reported that they have no clue, though one Congressional witness testifies that whatever happened, “I’m fairly certain that God sat this one out.” In Mapleton, blue ribbons are tied around tree trunks, and human-silhouette stencil-art mark lamp posts, eerie markers of presumed vaporizations that evoke some glorified Hiroshima. The first Heroes Parade is planned to commemorate the event, so-called because “no one’s going to come to a parade on we-don’t-know-what-the-eff-happened day,” says the mayor.

Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the police chief struggling to keep his town and himself together in what author and screenwriter Tom Perrotta has called an “epidemic of grief.” In the novel (which came out in 2011, right around the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks), Garvey is a retired businessman and political candidate. Making him a police officer for the TV show was smart; not only does it immerse him more deeply with the town’s most complicated citizens and its most bizarre goings-on, but it also lends his character a Chief-Brody-from-Jaws-like stature—the last sane man on the island, so to speak. Except Garvey might not be sane at all. He sees things, dreams things—like the buck he sees standing motionless in the dead-dog’s owner’s front yard, the buck he runs over with his car in his dream, the buck that may or may not have ripped up his kitchen, and the buck that he shares a moment with in the middle of the road before a pack of marauding dogs tear it to pieces. “Am I awake?” he asks the dog-sniper, the mysterious vigilante who shoots the old pets that have gone wild in the woods since witnessing their masters’ raptures. “You are now, aren’t you,” replies the dog-sniper, and both men empty their clips into the pack of ravenous Fidos and Rovers.

NEXT: A family affair

Garvey has a family, one that is struggling as much as everyone else who woke up with an ache of emptiness after being left behind. His daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is a dark and angry high-school senior, a field-hockey player who reacts to some rough play by crushing a teammates’ face with a wicked elbow in practice. Her coach sits her down, asks if things are okay with her at home after what happened to her mother. But her mother, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), it turns out, wasn’t one of the 2 percent. She’s very much around, a member of the suburban cult known as GR (Guilty Remnant), a sworn-silent, chain-smoking group who wear white and basically shadow the town’s citizens, watching silently from a distance as a living reminder (or provocation) that people are on the wrong path. Laurie sleeps on a mattress in a cul-de-sac mansion, and the first thing she does each morning is light up, part of the group’s ritual. There’s even a sign explaining it (one of several mottoes and affirmations plastered throughout the home): “We don’t smoke for enjoyment. We smoke to proclaim our faith.”

That we didn’t initially know how Laurie was linked to Garvey and Jill was a clever and effective storytelling device (at least to those who hadn’t read the book). Garvey is clearly tormented and struggling to keep up appearances after some terrible loss, while Jill’s exchange with her coach certainly hinted that her mother was one of the missing. But it’s not until the final chapter of the show, after Garvey tips back a few drinks at the bar after the Heroes Parade turned violent and commiserates with Nora over the numbing sadness they both feel over Oct. 14, that the complete Garvey family tree is colored in. “Where were you when it happened?” she asks him, assuming perhaps a certain shared tragedy. His memory flashes back to some quick-cut, hot-and-heavy sex, but he tells Nora he was just cleaning out the gutters. Was he having sex with Laurie… or some other woman? Garvey drunkenly drives over to the GR’s headquarters and angrily demands his wife back, but she sends him away.

With one parent out of the picture and the other preoccupied, Jill is sinking into an abyss. She and her more adventurous friend Aimee (Emily Meade) persuade her father to give them his car so they can attend a party, and despite their claims to the contrary, it’s a hedonistic and nihilistic affair with a hard-core game of Spin the Bottle that includes commands such as Hug, Burn, Choke, and F—. Jill gets stuck with Choke, and she and her partner end up half-naked in bed together. He masturbates while she mindlessly chokes him with one hand, all the while Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” plays over the scene. It’s the scene that captures everything about the show just so, and that’s not a critique.

Quick aside: Sometimes a show picks the perfect song to capture the mood, in earnest or ironic ways. But the premiere’s songlist felt a little too heavy-handed—hence the “Everybody Hurts” suggestion. During the Heroes Parade, they played James Blake’s “Retrograde,” and in the late bar scene, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” hummed in the background. Not only are the latter’s lyrics applicable to the characters’ plight, but they’re also evocative of 1960s clashes between protestors and police as the Heroes Parade clash flashes on the bar’s TV screens. I half expected a scene set in The Blue Note. Music can really add to a scene, but there’s only so much underlining that should be necessary. Okay, we get it. Life sucks. But let’s hear some “Happy,” shall we?

NEXT: The anti-Christ?

Everyone’s feeling burdened and abandoned and desperate for relief. Hence, the GR, the increased emphasis on prayer in schools, and the pseudo-savior, Wayne. A Texas congressmen (Berg player Brad Leland) pays money to be driven to an undisclosed location for an audience with this mysterious holy man, who can help people feel better. “Is he the real deal?” he asks his driver, Tom, who happens to be Garvey and Laurie’s son. “As real as it gets,” Tom answers.

Well, it’s possible that Wayne is a complete charlatan, even if he does seem to raise the congressman’s spirits. When Tom drops the politician off at the ranch (where Peter Berg himself is one of the guards), it becomes clear that: A) Wayne’s not preaching monastic discipline; and B) he has a type. The pool is sprinkled with very young, bikini-clad Asian girls, one of whom, Christine, is particularly friendly with Tom. People take notice of their rapport, and Tom is invited to stay overnight for a special meeting with Wayne. At night, Tom is awakened by Wayne, a bald, British-accented black man. Passive-aggressively brandishing a knife, he warns Tom to keep his hands off Christine and then shares a dream he’s been having that makes him believe that something is coming. “The grace period is over, Tom,” says Wayne, with messianic fervor. “Time to go to work.”

In some Christian theology, the Rapture refers to the seven-year period after the chosen few have been united with God. The “left-behind” face seven years of wars, plagues, suffering, and the emergence of the anti-Christ before 1,000 years of peace under Christ’s renewed rule. There’s already elements of that suffering in Mapleton, and Wayne hints that wars and increasing discord might be just around the corner. As one of the Ping-Pong dudes explains to Jill, as they bury the dead dog they found in her father’s car trunk, people might be resigned to the same fate as the pets who lost their minds: “Same thing is going to happen to us. It’s just taking longer.”

The show’s sense of purgatory and post-apocalyptic moral breakdown brings to mind two pop-cultural touchstones: Stephen King’s The Stand and Lost, whose Damon Lindelof co-wrote and executive produced The Leftovers. Both of those epic tales featured fascinating characters facing external existential threats and internal conflict, and Theroux’s police chief is a promising mix of Gary Sinese’s Stu Redman from the 1994 Stand miniseries and Lost‘s Jack Shephard.

You’ll note that I completely ignored Liv Tyler’s Meg, the miserable fiancee who is targeted by Laurie’s stalker team but ends up checking into the cult at the end of the episode. In the book, her character plays an important role, but the first episode didn’t invest too much in her arc.

Readers of the novel have a strong idea of where the show might lead, but I wouldn’t assume that HBO’s version traces the book beat by beat—even though Perrotta is involved. In fact, I’m fascinated by the push-pull creative sensibilities of Perrotta and Lindelof, who wouldn’t normally be in the same writers room. In the case of a television show, part of me wants Lindelof to prevail, though the pilot seemed fairly balanced. A character like Wayne, in particular, has the potential to be a much more nefarious figure in the show, and Theroux’s simmering-souled Garvey hooked me. I don’t mind living with miserable characters, as long as they’re interestingly miserable. There’s some glory in the gloom.

Episode Recaps

The Leftovers
A “rapture” drama from Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, whose book of the same name served as inspiration for the series.
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