'The Leftovers' Review: A 'Lost' Producer Goes To The Dark Side

06/26/2014 03:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2014
HBO

"The Leftovers" is the hardest kind of show to review. Aspects of it are intriguing and commendable, and among its virtues is a deep commitment to the examination of difficult mental and emotional states. It's trying, but in this sentence, I'm using that word as a verb.

That said, the adjective "trying" came to mind occasionally as I watched the four episodes that HBO sent for review (the media got the first, second, third and fifth hours). One episode in particular set my teeth on edge, given that it felt like a warmed-over episode of "The Twilight Zone" built on shaky yet predictable character foundations.

That episode and some other elements of the show frankly felt like a slog, but I kept going, and I will continue to do so. "The Leftovers" is somber and often sad, yet it's also sincere and willing to ask the big questions. "The Leftovers" is interesting television, even if, in the early going, it's not quite sure of what it wants to be or where it wants to go.

The HBO drama, which is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (who serves as a producer of the TV show), is the first post-"Lost" TV project of Damon Lindelof. Though I have no interest in re-litigating the island-based battles that occupied a fair number of TV addicts (myself included) for close to a decade, there are any number of thematic and structural elements that recall the ABC drama. In "The Leftovers," you'll find a man of faith who is tested, a somewhat self-contained community that serves as a microcosm for the larger world, any number of surreal or inexplicable occurrences, outbursts of violence and primal emotions, characters desperate for connections and a sense of belonging, subsets of outsiders who band together against a hostile world, fractured families, undependable fathers, etc. And they aren't the primary engine of the show, but there are flashbacks as well.

So if you watched "Lost," the following sentence will not surprise you. Though "The Leftovers" features excellent performances and top-notch production values, there's a certain amount of flailing in the four episodes I've seen, and that flailing is sometimes papered over with mystical hand-waving and Deep Thoughts that, upon further examination, turn out to be either shallow or tangential at best. And this time around, there's no Hurley to distract you and make you laugh. Make no mistake: It's a dark show. This is not even remotely a "Leftovers" plot clue, but tonally, the HBO show leans more toward "The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" than, say, "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead," if you get my "Lost"-ian drift.

The premise of "The Leftovers" is concisely depicted in the first few minutes of the pilot: About two percent of the world's population simply disappears. Almost immediately, the show jumps ahead three years. The aftereffects of "the departures" are still keenly felt but most people have settled into new and somewhat disjointed but semi-normal lives. "The Leftovers" takes place in the town of Maplewood, New York, where Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the sheriff and fighting his own battles with loss and confusion.

Perhaps this summer, an online battle will rage over how quickly or slowly "The Leftovers" doles out answers, and I'm of two minds on that front. We live in a world in which a show like "True Detective," which never consistently foregrounded its rather ramshackle mythology, and which strongly signaled its primary interest in philosophy and character studies, was ripped apart in certain quarters for not neatly ticking all the plot-resolution boxes. Sure, the finale could have reeked less of flop sweat, but the plot was never the point. "True Detective" used the frames of a crime drama without being all that interested in the "whodunnit" baggage, and, despite its various issues, I loved how committed it was to its distinctive brand of bittersweet bayou metaphysics.

"Fargo," on the other hand, could have used some "True Detective's" yearning messiness; the FX show had its moments and some great performances, but during its chilly climax, you could almost sense its reluctance to invoke the fury of the most vociferous message-board police. The clinical "correctness" of "Fargo's" ending felt hollow and deflating, to me, anyway. When attempting to examine the human condition, I find that neatness can be kind of overrated.

All things considered, Lindelof's new show is probably damned either way, and frankly, "The Leftovers" trips itself up in both directions. I don't necessarily need answers, but there are aspects of certain characters' lives and creeds that, to be honest, don't make much sense to me. A lot of the life of Maplewood cleric Matt Jamison strikes me as uninspired Locke outtakes, and Christopher Eccleston's attempt at an American accent for the role doesn't help.

There's also a group of characters -- members of what some call a cult -- who don't talk as a philosophical and quasi-religious choice, and aspects of that group's lifestyle and belief system don't really hang together or remain frustratingly vague. What do Jamison and the cult members believe and why do they believe it? I don't need to know because I demand answers, but because knowing might help me care about them more, but there are times that the show is too cryptic and oblique.

Yet with the fewest lines of any actors on the show, Ann Dowd and Amy Brenneman, who both play members of the cult, kept me interested in that aspect of the show. As was the case with "Lost," the casting and the character stories, when they work, often make up for a fair amount of meandering and even wallowing.

Though I haven't read Perrotta's book, there's no doubt that the premise of both versions of "The Leftovers" is very smart. Two percent of the world gone: It doesn't sound like a lot, but it's everything if one of your loved one suddenly disappears, or if the ripple effect of the "departures" tears apart the fabric of your life. Two percent is enough to destabilize people and their belief systems and it's enough to rattle whole societies, but it's not as if the workaday business of living simply stopped on the day those people whooshed away. I'm grateful, in other words, that "The Leftovers" didn't take the easy way out and thrust everyone into a burnt-out apocalypse. It's harder when life is the same, but it isn't. It not a sexy title, but the show could well have been called "The Grievers."

Pain and grief are unstable entities and they play out in unpredictable ways in human beings and in societies. In Maplewood and everywhere else, the randomness and arbitrary nature of life have been turned up a few degrees, and unsurprisingly, people are cracking under the pressure. Or maybe they just think they're cracking. In the end, the distinction may be academic.

Ultimately, "The Leftovers" depicts a series of personal apocalypses, and it's an open question as to whether it will be able to spin these individual and community crises into a viable ongoing TV series. So far, it's not more than the sum of its mournful parts, but it's making a big effort, and it may get there eventually.

"The Leftovers" debuts 10 p.m. ET Sunday on HBO.

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