“Look what I found.”
Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) has a problem. He’s chief of police in Mapleton, a New York suburb reeling after the mysterious disappearance of more than one-hundred of their citizens three years ago. They just vanished, in the middle of their daily activities, no sign as to where they went or, better yet, why they went. Kevin’s family is still here, but here is a relative term. His son Tom (Chris Zylka) hasn’t been home for awhile, off working for the mysterious Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a man who believes he can cure people of their grief with a simple hug. Kevin’s daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is still at home but busy getting into trouble and holding resentment toward her mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman) who, literally, hasn’t spoken a word in eons. You see, she’s now a part of The Guilty Remnant, a cult-like group living together in a house in Mapleton, leaving their friends and families behind to serve a greater purpose. That purpose is to remind the people left in Mapleton, the leftovers, of their dearly departed loved ones, no matter how they may try to forget. Kevin deals with these conflicts between The Guilty Remnant and the leftovers every day, but none take a toll on him the way his own mind does. You see, Kevin thinks he just may be going crazy.
The Leftovers is one of HBO’s latest television endeavors, one adapted from a novel of the same name written by Tom Perrotta who himself serves as one of the main writers on the series. The series is run by Damon Lindelof, best known for being one half of the showrunner team behind ABC’s Lost. As you can imagine, any creative endeavor with Lindelof’s name on it comes with a certain amount of scrutiny based on the divisive reaction to how Lost ended. His work on The Leftovers, however, has firmly entrenched him yet again as one of the best writers working within the television landscape.
The key to The Leftovers success is its ability to set itself apart from everything else currently on television. It’s focus is not on big story events or moving its plot forward at a feverish pace, but rather on creating an eerie atmosphere and crafting characters who run almost solely on their emotions. Mapleton is a ghost town now, not because it is no longer inhabited, but because its residents have lost something within themselves. Some don’t know how to deal with losing their loved ones, throwing themselves into their work without a second thought, while others can’t help but constantly think about the departure and search for answers as to what exactly happened on that fateful day. Kevin Garvey is somewhere inbetween.
Giving the show’s lead performance, Justin Theroux has never been better. Kevin grows increasingly unhinged as the season wears on and Theroux taps into his fragile emotional state by making the character seem on the verge of an outburst at even the most routine of times. His journey mirrors that of the show’s audience for much of the season, at times not knowing the difference between what he’s dreaming and what is actually occurring in Mapleton. By season’s end, Kevin has been through the ringer and we feel it as much as he does because we’ve experienced his constant emotional fluctuations.
The show’s secret weapon is actress Carrie Coon, who plays Nora Durst, a woman who lost her husband, son and daughter in the departure. As one can imagine when losing your entire immediate family, Nora is a broken soul, which is made abundantly clear in the episode she gets all to herself entitled “Guest”. In this episode, Nora travels to the second annual Departure Related Occupations and Practices Conference for work and finds that someone has already used her credentials to enter. Being forced to be a guest at a conference in which she is a featured speaker, Nora uses this as an excuse to let loose, partying with fellow conference-goers she just met and using her anonymity to be normal for a day or two. It’s heartbreaking to see a strong woman like Nora forced to hide in her own skin, and Coon does a fantastic job of making us feel her pain every waking moment. Toward the end of the episode, Nora is confronted with making a decision that could alter her emotional state forever and help mask her pain, and Coon devastates us with a simple look that says more than we ever wanted to know.
The rest of the cast is for the most part used nicely, particularly Doctor Who-alum Christopher Eccleston who plays Nora’s brother, Reverend Jamison. He’s one of the few beacons of light in Mapleton, always having a positive outlook and believing that things will work themselves out. Well, on the surface at least. We learn that there is much more going on with the Rev in his own centric-episode, and Eccleston plays it perfectly. Veteran character actor Scott Glenn acquits himself nicely as Kevin Garvey Sr., the former chief of police who was removed from his job after being committed to the loony bin, something Theroux as his son plays off nicely, making you question whether crazy is in the blood. Ann Dowd also delivers, as always, as Patti, leader of The Guilty Remnant. Perhaps the lone casting misstep is Liv Tyler who, I’ll admit, I’ve never been a particular fan of.
Besides creating a unique atmosphere and developing its characters nicely, The Leftovers also provides some truly stunning visuals thanks to veteran filmmakers Peter Berg and Mimi Leder. It also is the only television show I’ve ever seen that successfully captures so many different forms of grief and the varying ways in which people deal with it.
While the show was inconsistent at times early on, the last few episodes were absolutely breathtaking and brought everything at stake throughout the first season together nicely. In the penultimate episode “The Garveys at Their Best”, Lindelof uses the flashback format for which he was known on Lost to great effect, giving new shades to the characters we’ve gotten to know over the course of these ten episodes. We learn what life was like for them before the departure and in some cases see the moment in which they experienced it, and immediately understand their actions and wavering emotional states since.
In the season finale “The Prodigal Son Returns”, Kevin is talking with Reverend Jamison when we learn that he believes his emotions at the time of the departure had an effect on the event itself. We the audience don’t know what to believe. Is Kevin just projecting his emotions onto an event that can’t possibly be explained, or did his emotions have consequences? We aren’t given a definitive answer, nor should we. The Leftovers is a show that runs on not only its characters’ emotions, but the audience’s as well. I’ll admit, I got a little choked up in the finale. For all the depressing occurrences that happen daily in Mapleton, there is a chance that things can get better and that these characters can find happiness, no matter what form it may take.
I don’t know where The Leftovers can possibly go for its second season, but one thing is certain: I’ll be watching.