HBO should consider adding an advisory to the start of each of the 10 episodes of “The Leftovers.” It might read something like: “Viewers who have had suicidal thoughts strongly cautioned.”
Or: “Drink plenty of coffee before you begin watching this. Keep the pot percolating.”
Or: “Hogwash alert.”
“The Leftovers” is based on the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta, who created the show with Damon Lindelof (“Lost”). HBO sent copies of the book to critics so we might be able to make sense of the series. Unfortunately, the rest of you are on your own.
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The story is set three years after 2 percent of the world’s population has been raptured, or maybe just disappeared or went out for a smoke. Good, bad and ugly alike, they all just vanished one day, but life has gone on because that’s what life does.
In the sleepy town of Mapleton, N.Y., Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) tries to go about his business but clashes frequently with Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren). His daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is a typically sullen teenager, seeking solace in religion and in her friendship with Lolita-like Aimee (Emily Meade), and son Tom (Chris Zylka) is out West, mixed up with a self-styled healer with a thing for young Asian women.
Kevin’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), is around, but she’s not talking – literally. She’s a member of a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant who dress totally in white, do not speak, chain-smoke cigarettes and want something that, like so much of “The Leftovers,” isn’t clear.
Others in town see the disappeared as “heroes” because they have obviously been called by God. The minister thinks otherwise and in order to nudge the townfolk back to true faith, he posts flyers around town disclosing that this missing person was a gambler, this one a tramp, this one a drug dealer, this one a child molester.
The show moves at a glacial pace with virtually no explanation of what is happening. This wrongheaded artiness may test your patience. On the other hand, I can see some viewers deciding “The Leftovers” is really, like, deep and, like, all like metaphysical and stuff.
The show is overloaded with religious symbolism, but the kind that makes Dan Brown look like Dante Alighieri. The fundamental question we eventually figure we’re supposed to be asking is whether the disappeared were really raptured in the first place, and, if so, why did the 2 percent include criminals as well as innocent babies?
We’re also meant to ponder how ordinary people react to things they can’t understand. A man shoots stray dogs and has an ever-present wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth that makes him look like Don Corleone. Another man creates a scam where he will hug “the burn” out of you for a hefty price.
The apparent motif here is that, as Sartre put it, “Hell is other people” and that Mapleton is supposed to represent a limbo where souls await their eventual fate.
All of this worked far better in print than in a bloated TV adaptation. It’s not that the story wouldn’t make good TV, it’s that in this version, it doesn’t. It’s confusing, slow-moving and often excruciating.