Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Leftovers Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”

I just watched the series premiere of The Leftovers, the new show from former Lost co-showrunner Damon Lindelof. Considering Lindelof’s involvement, it is unsurprising that there are a quite a few similarities between The Leftovers and Lost 

The Leftovers’ narrative seems to center on a question (or series of questions) that the series will supposedly answer throughout the length of its run: what happened to the 2% of the Earth’s population that disappeared out of the blue on October 14th, three years ago? (The equivalent Lost question is somewhat more vague: what’s the deal with this strange island?) Like Lost, it’s a question whose answer seems like it might involve supernatural forces, but one that will not be answered quickly or easily, and that will last the entire run of the series, with an implicit promise that answers will come eventually (or not).

Also similar to Lost, The Leftovers’ central question spawns a series of smaller-scale questions, such as where the shows' various characters were on October 14th, who they’ve lost, and how it’s affected them in the time since. Many of these questions are answered quickly over the course of the pilot, at least for the principal characters, through very brief flashbacks (once again similar to Lost, which used much more elaborate flashback and flashforward structures for the entire run of the series). More prominent are unanswered questions involving the Guilty Remnant, the white-clad, cult-like group who have taken a vow of silence in reaction to the disappearance, and who seem to have a very specific-yet-inscrutable agenda of antagonizing everyone else who is trying to cope with their loses in more traditional ways (in the Lost matching game, the Guilty Remnant are the closest equivalent of the Others). Other somewhat more supernatural-seeming questions also reverberate throughout the margins: What kind of power is possessed by the messiah or guru-like figure, Wayne, and why does he need a (homespun) security detail to protect him? Who are the young women staying at his compound, and why do they also need protecting? Why have the dogs of disappeared humans turned feral? Why did a deer tear up the kitchen of a prominent character in the middle of the night?

However, the pilot does not dwell too much on these questions. Indeed, it relegates debates over the show’s central conceit – the disappearance of October 14th – to the blathering talking heads of television news networks, which can be heard in the background and at the start or end of scenes. The inanity of these televised arguments, and the disdain various characters have for them, seems like a moderately reflexive commentary on those viewers of The Leftovers who would prioritize questions about the show’s possibly supernatural premise over its emphasis on compelling characters. And indeed, to its benefit, this emphasis on character over mystery is another trait that The Leftovers shares with Lost. The show does not dwell on the cause of the disappearance, but on the effects it has on the people who remain, their sense of loss, their anger, their resentment, their depression, and the ways in which they cope with the mess the disappearance has made of their lives in the years since.

This emphasis is made especially clear by the narration’s attachment to the four principal characters that comprise the Garvey family: the father and chief-of-police, Kevin, his wife, Laurie, their teenage daughter, Jill, and their college-aged son, Tom. None of this nuclear family disappeared on October 14th, but Laurie has since become a member of the Guilty Remnant, which has in turn made all of the other family members estranged from one another. Kevin and Jill still live at home together, but their relationship is rife with tension and poor communication (typical of many angsty teens and their parents, but compounded by Laurie’s abandonment of their family). Tom dropped out of college and has since gone to work for the guru Wayne’s security detail, and spends the episode avoiding Kevin’s phone calls. However, despite Tom’s placid demeanor, he too is having a tough time dealing with the pressures he faces, as evidenced by the primal, underwater scream he unleashes after Wayne warns him not to flirt with the young women staying at Wayne’s compound. The collective problems of this family are emphasized near the end of the pilot, as the show crosscuts between Tom screaming underwater, Kevin unsuccessfully trying to call Tom on the phone, and Jill crying as she looks at a photo of the family from happier times (whose frame was smashed by Kevin earlier in the episode).

Regardless of whatever you might think of the way Lost ultimately handled its questions regarding the mystery (or mysteries) at its center, that show relied on the strength of its characters just as much as it did its central conceit to muster and retain viewer interest in its narrative, and it appears as though The Leftovers will also share a similar strength and focus.* Lingering questions about the (supernatural?) mysteries will undoubtedly drive some of the narrative, but mostly, the show seems focused on telling stories about how compelling characters deal with unexplainable loss, both in terms of the people who have disappeared, and in terms of the people who have given up their former lives to become members of the Guilty Remnant. In doing so, hopefully it will manage to avoid some of the more frustrating pitfalls to which Lost occasionally succumbed, and will instead strike a healthy balance between intrigue over its premise, and well-written characters trying to cope with the situation borne out of it. If the pilot is any indication, The Leftovers has the makings of a powerful television series.

* Poorly written characters was a failing of many of the Lost imitators that have come and gone in the decade since it premiered.

Other thoughts:

- The pilot does a nice job of withholding the information that Laurie is the mother of the Garvey family until near the end of the episode. We are led to assume that Laurie was one of the 2% that disappeared on October 14th, but their problems become much more complicated (and much more interesting) when we learn that Laurie didn’t disappear, but instead became a member of the Guilty Remnant. Rather than the inexplicable and random loss of death (which most closely approximates the feelings of others who knew the disappeared, even if no one is sure that they are in fact dead), the Garveys are instead dealing with what seems like a very deliberate abandonment by their wife or mother.

- Another nice product of our thinking Laurie was one of the disappeared: when someone asks Kevin where he was on October 14th, we get a brief flashback of him having sex with Laurie, and it seems as though Kevin must have witnessed her disappearing while they were having sex. Chilling.

- I enjoyed the news montage of disappeared celebrities, which helped to dispel the notion that the disappearance was some sort of rapture (at least in Christian terms), and also provided a touch of humor when a bartender reacts incredulously to the identities of some of the disappeared (like Gary Busey).

- All of the Guilty Remnant members are avid smokers. Perhaps this habit relates to their antagonistic message at the memorial, spelled out on giant placards: “Stop wasting your breath!”

- Was Kevin too drunk to hear the deer tearing up his kitchen at night, or is this another telltale indicator of the supernatural conceit at the show’s center?

- I liked that the characters refer to the disappearance by its date, which is reminiscent of September 11th. However, I was less enthused by the term that some of the characters use to describe the disappeared: "heroes." At least I'm not alone: the mayor of the town has to justify "heroes" as the way in which people want to remember the disappeared. However, the literalist in me would prefer that they simply be referred to as "the disappeared."

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