The nature of despair has always been a rich source of drama for the makers of great TV shows. Widows, orphans and extended families struggling through grief have graced many a television screen over the years. And recently the lens has been pulled back even further to examine how death can affect entire communities in the likes of Broadchurch and The Returned. Even so, I’d wager that there is nothing that has been before that can adequately prepare you for the intense melancholy of The Leftovers, Sky Atlantic’s newest HBO import, which began last night.
Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel, The Leftovers takes place three years after a global tragedy that saw 2% of the world’s population vanish. And yet the show is not really about what happened so much as it is about the people left behind, their human hunger for understanding and the different ways the cope with knowing the most profound answers will never come.
Likewise, any viewers expecting to find out where these people went and why will be left disappointed; the mysterious Sudden Departure – which disintegrated families and tore relationships apart – is not the focus here. Instead the drama hones in on the fictional town of Mapleton, New York, an ordinary American suburb that has been devastated by loss. Three years without answers has twisted the view many of its townspeople had of the world. Some now choose to isolate themselves, returning to the memories of when their families were together; others need to feel angry, rallying against the Departed in order to distract themselves from the pain.
There are people like Justin Theroux’s police chief Kevin Garvey, who suffers from disturbing hallucinations and has to battle to keep what’s left of his family together while clinging on to what remains of his sanity. Then there are people like Liv Tyler’s engaged-suburbanite Meg, a woman whose apparently perfect life is on the brink of a breakdown. In their despair and confusion, the town has become a breeding ground for unsettling cults like the white-clad mutes of the Guilty Remnant, a group of The Shinning-inspired mourners who believe they are a living reminder of the Departure, and the intensely charming preacher (Patterson Joseph, in a role strangely similar to his Peep Show character) who claims he can “unburden” people of their pain. It’s this collection of small human moments that combine to paint a portrait of how sudden loss can destroy a person.
The Leftovers certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. There will be those who find it unremittingly bleak and depressing, and many more will find the absence of a clear plot increasingly infuriating. Nor will they be won over by its purposefully blunt and hypnotic style that is quite content to sit in the gaze of grief with its characters and give you a chance to get to know them.
So why should anyone stick with it? Quite simply, because it is the most gripping and engaging thing on TV. The pilot episode alone is a lesson in how to stretch tension to breaking point, depicting a town on the verge of conflict before finally letting the tension snap in a brutal sequence in which the Guilty Remnant provoke a violent assault by a gaggle of mourners that will leave you horrified as to the depths mankind can sink.
But more than that, there is a thin veil of hope buried beneath all the tragedy. There are fleeting moments of normalcy sprinkled throughout the episode, such as a teenage girl’s awkward attempt to flirt with a cute boy, a tepid town council meeting and a disruptive family dinner, that suggest redemption is a possibility – people can move on with their lives and escape the despair if they can just learn to stick together.
The Leftovers may be too miserable to cheer you up at the end of a hard day, but as an examination of the human condition there really is nothing better.
Click here to watch the trailer for The Leftovers