The Leftovers is the newest hypeworthy HBO drama, helmed by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the author of the eponymous book it adapts. Set three years after 2% of Earth’s population vanished into thin air with no explanation, the show hones in on the town of Mapleton, New York and the lives of the people left behind. Primarily devoted to the experiences of the Garvey family– specifically Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey, the chief of Mapleton’s police– the show’s pilot debuted on Sunday and is receiving accolades for its heady concept and unique exploration of spiritualism in America. Dylan Garsee and Nick Hanover got together to hash out the pilot and their thoughts about it and where the show might go now.
Nick Hanover: To start off this whole Leftovers shebang, refresh my memory: you actually liked the Lost finale, right?
Dylan Garsee: I loved the Lost finale. Me and NPR’s Linda Holmes are literally the only people in the universe that liked it.
Nick: So this show, which so far is all about a very weird kind of purgatory, must be your jam. Did it strike a similarly quasi-spiritual “we’re all lost until we can find one another” vibe in you?
Dylan: I thought that through all of the dog shooting and unexplained cults, this show is one of the best meditations on grief I’ve seen on television.
There definitely is a heavy theme of “constant wanderer” in the pilot. I’ve heard complaints from people that wonder why the world has taken so long to grieve the raptured, but three years still sounds like too short of time to get over the fact that 2% of the population vanished.
Nick: That’s apparent right at the start, with the cold open’s depiction of the day everyone disappeared seen through the perspective of a mother desperately trying to find her infant while everyone else is distracted with their own losses. The show uses the different stages of grief, and the different ways people move through those stages, to provide structure. There’s no real “protagonist,” just different focuses in different scenes, like Police Chief Garvey (Justin Theroux) as the personification of anger or the Guilty Remnant cult as the personification of depression. But do you think that grief is enough of an angle to keep HBO viewers interested the same way they have been with shows like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones?
Dylan: I think it’s a very different show for HBO to attempt. In all honesty, the pilot reminded me a lot of the pilot for Twin Peaks, but through the eyes of Inland Empire-era David Lynch. In other words, the constant over the shoulder camera angles and washed out lighting gives the show the homemade-by-way-of-genius feel of Inland Empire with the top down politics and mystery of Twin Peaks.
Nick: I can see the Twin Peaks connection but at the moment it’s avoiding the supernatural angle in favor of general spiritualism, which made the pilot a little more nebulous than I would have liked. The first episode primarily focused on three groups, each representing different general viewpoints on the event. In one corner is Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), an unfortunate continuation of the magic black man trope, except here he’s a doomsday messiah with a desert compound, a hip-hop video harem and what appears to be a connection to the anti-Christ. In the other is the GR, a cult devoted to slowly killing themselves with cigarettes and mob agitation. Somewhere in the middle is the general population, who are too confused and frightened to have much of a viewpoint.
While I agree with you on the grief front, I was frustrated by how little effort the show put into developing these groups. By the end of the pilot I had no real idea what the GR’s motives are (other than what’s made obvious by their name), which is likely partially by design but mostly symptomatic of Lindelof’s desire to never define anything. Ignoring themes or symbolism for a moment, did any of these characters truly click for you?
Dylan: I’m the most interested in the GR– not just because Kathy Geiss from 30 Rock is a member, and also not only because it reminds of the cult of women in Top of the Lake, and also not only because Ann Dowd is the leader– because I’m most interested in how they formed and how they started.
The foundation of cults is such an interesting topic and too few shows explore it, so hopefully there are plenty of Lost-esque flashbacks.
Nick: I’m eager to see more of the cult, too, particularly since they also seem to mostly be a mystery to the other characters. Their habit of silently following key characters around is pretty creepy, and I think the show could mine some “Others” style horror out of that. But don’t you think they might encourage some of Lindelof’s worst habits?
Dylan: I don’t think it’ll be like the Others because the GR and the other cult are initial plot points, not season three additions.
Nick: That is a good point, especially since this is Lindelof adapting a novel by Tom Perrotta rather than Lindelof strictly making shit up as he goes along. But I’m still worried that Lindelof will get distracted by the symbolism of the cult and never get around to developing real personalities for its members. Obviously, we’re only an episode in, but I already felt some of that was apparent with the Liv Tyler subplot, where she inexplicably joined the cult’s side after they stalked her all evening. Is this how they recruit people? Is there a crucial missing element to that conversion that we’ll glimpse later? Are we supposed to trust that her pending marriage was just so frightening to her that a doomsday cult was infinitely more appealing?
Dylan: I think both of the cults show two sides of exploiting the people who are the most vulnerable after the rapture. With the desert cult, they’re financially exploiting the people in the public eye. And the GR are trying to recruit people who feel guilty about staying.
Although these are just theories. I should just read the books.
But it’s good to theorize about a show again. And since I didn’t watch True Detective, it’s been a while since I’ve watched a show where I can do some crazy theorizing.
Nick: I was admittedly intrigued by Wayne, our resident desert cult messiah, and his foreboding knowledge of the future, which left me wondering if they’re directly connected to the GR or if they’re going to be at conflict with one another soon. On that plot front, there was a little more concrete movement thanks to that prophetic foreshadowing, but more importantly it offered a glimpse at the outside world.
That leads into one of my biggest issues with the pilot, which was how ridiculous it was that so many people from one small town in New York were taken during the event. We’re told over and over that 2% of the world’s population was taken, but I swear 99% of that 2% came from this one fucking town.
Dylan: I’m actually okay with the weird proportion of the taken population. If it was truly a random number, there might be some pockets of communities with a larger percentage taken. Even that may be a more subtle mystery. Why this place, why this town?
Nick: I hope you’re right. Speaking of mysteries, though, let’s talk about the world’s weirdest teen party for a minute.
While you were watching this, one of your first messages to me was along the lines of “oh no surly teenagers.” All of the teens on the show are pretty damn surly– which makes sense given the circumstances– but did that party take you out of the show’s otherwise brooding atmosphere as much as it did me?
Dylan: That was border line Spring Breakers-level funhouse mirroring of teenage life.
But I actually didn’t hate the party. I thought it added another level of surreal.
Nick: Just to recap, the party involved a host who had to have been on meth, what appeared to be an orgy in the background, and a Spin the Bottle app featuring prompts like “burn” and “choke.”
The surreality isn’t what took me out of it as much as how out of character it seemed for the Garvey’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley).
Dylan: I haven’t been a teenager for a while, but I’d assume that there are now some kids playing a sort of spin the bottle app. And with the “burn” and “choke” it was kind of cheeky.
But yeah, Jill’s kind of the worst.
Nick: She eventually fled the party, but not before stripping down with a Shaun White lookalike, who jerked off while she choked him because the Spin the Bottle app gave them “choke.” The rest of the episode painted her not as a necessarily prudish character, but someone who is obstinate and disconnected from her peers and mostly immune to pressure—until she acquiesces to going to the party just to piss off her dad. There was a minor romantic incentive for her to go to the party, but that aspect basically seemed to disappear once they were at the party. And when she fled the party, she became oddly sentimental, requesting the aid of a couple dudes that are either twins or in a secret relationship to help her bury a dead dog her dad happened to have in his truck. Which only served to make that bizarre masturbation/asphyxiation scene even stranger (admittedly, though, awkward sexual encounters are a Tom Perrotta trademark).
Dylan: That scene at the end with the parallel break downs between the police chief’s children was kind of beautiful, but it did seem so out of character for her, which is weird for someone we just met.
Nick: I get that this show is trying to indicate these are all characters in flux, who have struggled to reground themselves three years after a completely inexplicable and seemingly supernatural event. But she wavered between extremes so much it was basically cartoonish.
Dylan: Speaking of the twins, though, we are clearly brushing over something that needs to be discussed.
Every male character is so hot.
Actually just let me talk about it for a second.
Nick: ::steps away, checks privilege::
Dylan: Justin Theroux is the peak of human evolution. And in the beginning you can kind of see his penis in his sweatpants.
His son, hot in a rugged early 20 something way.
And you kind of see his penis at the end in the scene where he screams in pool.
I want to see the twins make out.
All the other guys are whatever.
End of objectification, back to the mysteries!
Nick: ::returns from checking privilege::
Dylan: Still a cis privilege shitlord, I see.
Nick: If it helps, I spent the entire time I stepped away from the conversation looking at Buck Angel videos.
That’s what I was supposed to do, right?
Nick: On a similar note, though, are there any non-fucked up relationships on this show? Perrotta has a history of obsession with messy domesticity, but I felt like this pilot was particularly extreme on that front. Chief Garvey struggles to communicate with anyone on any level other than childish rage, and as a result his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a mystery cult, his daughter Jill humiliates him in front of her friends (one of whom seems to be into cop dad) and his son won’t even return his phone calls. The only people who want to hang out with Garvey are a goofy deputy and a dude who drives around shooting dogs.
Meanwhile, Liv Tyler is a runaway bride, cop dad’s son is macking on a potentially underage concubine to no real effect and cop dad’s daughter pines for a still completely undefined jock while ignoring the twins you’re lusting after.
I’m just waiting for Matthew Fox to show up and immediately start love triangles with the entire population.
Dylan: The only thing I want to see Matthew Fox doing on this show is making out with Justin Theroux.
But I’d like some stable relationships on the show. Maybe it’ll show people who have managed to move on.
Nick: That pretty much nails what I was missing, that representation of another, more optimistic viewpoint. The twins are realistically the only people we’ve seen who have “moved on” in any sense, and it was nice to see them juxtapose Ms. Grumpypants, even if that scene was an odd fit on the whole.
Dylan: “You don’t want to play ping pong?”
Nick: As a noted Friday Night Lights obsessive, what did you think of Peter Berg’s direction?
Dylan: The direction was incredible. The pacing was great, and there were some really interesting acting choices.
And he even snuck an FNL alum (Brad Leland) as the congressman who, until prove otherwise, went to a gay conversion cult.
Nick: I was impressed with the ambience Berg brought to the show. For a show about a Revelations-style global event, it was incredibly light on cliched symbols and relatively frenetic, especially in those flashbacks, which almost had the look and feel of a zombie flick.
Dylan: That opening, where it showed the people disappearing, was one of the most powerful cold opens ever since, dare I say, Lost.
If you can’t tell already, I really loved the pilot.
Nick: The cold open was pretty startling, and I’m selfishly hoping that’s not the last we’ve seen of that day on the show. I didn’t hate the pilot, either, as much as I’m nitpicking on it. I’m just a little wary after Lost and everything Lindelof has done in its wake. You’re absolutely right that this show explores a lot of subjects that go untouched on tv, and it’s great to see HBO deviate from their other content so much. I just hope that we see these characters developed more and that the show doesn’t get too distracted with less interesting aspects of the plot.
Dylan: Thank goodness Lindelof is only writing a few episodes and we have the source material of a much beloved book. I’m really excited for something new to watch, especially since I’m finishing Orange is The New Black today.
Nick: You and your prison dramas.