The Leftovers, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Written by Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrota
Directed by Peter Berg
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on HBO
The best thing about The Leftovers is its premise, and not because it’s really that ingenious, or cool. Its rapture-based concept is ground that has been covered before in other series and books, but the scale of it is just right here for nuanced material, the incident being big enough to be a personal catastrophe, yet small enough to keep it from being a global one (like say, all the males dying was in Y: The Last Man). With no rhyme or reason to who was picked, on top of a three-year gap from the event itself, what we’re left with instead of the typical action plot or mystery, is basically the perfect, world-wide existential crisis.
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After all, how do you keep your head up and make dinner when you know there is a completely random, destructive universal force at work, that seems contrary to everything you knew, everything even those in authority and smarter than you knew? When the pilot episode delves into this everyday tension, it is at its best, and the smartest decision made is that our main family actually seems to have lost none of its members in the 2% population deletion. Whatever causes mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman) to join up with The Remnant, and son Tom (Chris Zylka) with Holy Wayne, it was not the usual grief that would have been so easy to depict. There are instead deeper reactions and philosophies to be mined. The world has changed, we see, and so have its people.
What unfortunately works less well in this pilot, however, is that the creators seem to think that straddling the line between the mellow and the dramatic means combining them together and coming up with melodramatic. Characters in most scenes are always crying, screaming, fighting, or breaking things, all to an over-the-top score. Peter Berg’s direction is absolutely cinematic and holds your attention, but in no way sustains itself, or creates the comfortable, little moments that the television medium affords and thrives on. Also, on a practical level, the constant hysterics affects our scenes with The Remnant cult, their vow of silence becoming less creepy and surreal, and more like a reprieve.
Also mishandled is the teen party scene, our biggest peek at the world at large. It is fascinating to think what teens would be like, growing up in a world where there is nothing to count on, and the iPhone game is highly economical in showing us their hedonistic lengths—but then why is the writing afraid to pull the trigger? When Jill (Margaret Qualley) strips down to her underwear to choke her friend while he masturbates, there is so much potential for numbness and a new normal, which it flirts with, but what we end up with is usual female degradation and weeping. Having our teen hero rebel by saying the c-word is hardly enough to hook us into her or her world right now.
The adult world, therefore, must pick up the slack, but that’s not all there yet, either. A shaky meeting for exposition gives us facts and odd, contentious relationships, but little investment. Things get more interesting during and after “Heroes Day” (which is some pretty genius branding even Don Draper could be proud of), but our lead Kevin (Justin Theroux) is too actively put-upon throughout to connect with. He cuts very close to the “just wants his family back” cliché and is too eerily reminiscent of Jack Shepherd from creator Damon Lindelof’s other baby, Lost, in his righteousness.
Still, the utter potential for The Leftovers is shown starkly in little moments like Nora’s speech, the cult’s methods for recruitment, and especially the dog plot. At first, the dogs going crazy irked me, feeling more Stephen King than necessary, but what saves the idea is the teen’s speech about how theirs is actually the most natural reaction to having someone disappear in front of your eyes—pure, berserk insanity. Our hero shoots at a canine pack by episode’s end, now convinced that they’re not “our dogs.” But I’d love to find out as we go along that maybe they are. They are exactly what the people in this world, what we in general, are capable of becoming… because those are some high stakes for the show to stand on. Anything to keep this show about an existential crisis, and not an identity crisis between sharp, suburban observation and supernatural preoccupation will be welcome.