Eternal Judgement

‘The Leftovers’ Review: A Fever Dream You Can’t Wake Up From

There are no zombies to contend with. No hollowed-out metropolises. No charismatic antiheroes. Just millions and millions of people, all dealing with their own individual end times.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

For several centuries now, artists of one sort or another have been depicting the Biblical event that has come to be known as The Rapture—you know, that thing where all of the believers on Earth suddenly rise up to Heaven and the rest of humanity remains here, awaiting its eternal judgment.

These depictions tend to be rather, shall we say, pyrotechnic. Jan Luyken's One in the Field shows lightbeams shooting down from the sky and a winged angel pointing the way toward heaven as peasants cower nearby. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's Left Behind novels revolve around a team of godly Green Berets hell-bent on saving the world from a Romanian politician who also happens to be the Antichrist. And then there's whatever this is.

But imagine if The Rapture actually happened. It wouldn't be all fireworks, would it? Sure, the initial poof would seem pretty spectacular—car crashes, mothers sobbing over their strollers, that sort of stuff. But the real drama would develop during long slow burn that came next. Many would believe that God had beamed up the righteous. Others wouldn't know what to believe. There would be arguments. Factions. Congressional hearings. So-called "experts" on CNN. And all the while, in family rooms and bedrooms and breakfast nooks around the world, ordinary people wouldn't have any choice but to go on living: to grapple every day with the unbearable repercussions—a missing father, a missing lover, a missing friend—of a mystery that refused to explain itself.

That's the premise of The Leftovers, HBO's flawed but fascinating new series: what would The Rapture—the upending trauma of it—really feel like for all the folks who didn't vanish into thin air? How would it change them? How would they cope?

It's difficult to imagine anyone better equipped to dramatize these questions than the show's creators. The Leftovers was originally a novel by the talented Tom Perrotta (Election, Little Children), who serves here as a writer and executive producer. His partner is showrunner Damon Lindelof, the brains behind Lost, perhaps the finest series to date about a group of human beings trying to make sense of—and survive in—an enigmatic, inexplicable new world. And the first two episodes were directed by Peter Berg of Friday Night Lights, who is a master of small-town pathos.

The small town, in this case, is Mapleton, N.Y. Three years ago, two percent of the world's population—good guys, bad guys, "Garyfucking Busey"—abruptly vanished. No rhyme, no reason. Now Kevin Garvey (a taut, tense Justin Theroux) is Mapleton's chief of police. He didn't lose anyone in "The Sudden Departure," but his family has splintered anyway.

The only Garvey who still lives at home with Kevin is his daughter Jill (newcomer Margaret Qualley), a smart but sullen high-school senior who is beginning to rebel: pot, booze, sex, holding her hand a little too close to the Bunsen burner in chemistry class. Jill's brother Tom (Chris Zylka), meanwhile, has run off to Nevada to join a cultish movement led by a black Brit named Holy Wayne who claims he can hug people's pain away. And then there's Laurie (Amy Brenneman), the Garveys' mater familias. She too has joined a cult of sorts, only this one is headquartered, rather uneasily, right there in Mapleton. They're called the Guilty Remnant: a small but growing cabal of locals who refuse to let the rest of the town "forget" what happened. They wear white. They don't speak. Basically, they just stand around chain-smoking—why bother having faith in the future at this point?—and antagonizing their fellow Mapletonians.

At the center of this eerie emotional maelstrom is Kevin: struggling to be a single dad; struggling to let go of his wife; struggling to stay in touch with his son; struggling to hold Mapleton together after violence begins to tear the town apart; struggling with the dark visions that come to him in the night; struggling to figure out what the heck is up with the sardonic bald dude who keeps appearing out of nowhere to gun down runaway dogs. "They're not our dogs," the bald dude likes to mutter. "Not anymore." Kevin is skeptical at first. Soon he starts to agree.

In terms of what happens, at least in the first four episodes—well, that's about it. But The Leftovers is the kind of show that's more about what doesn't happen than what does. Perrotta's apocalypse isn't global; it's personal. The planet's usual routine has resumed. There are no zombies to contend with. No cyborgs. No hollowed-out metropolises. No charismatic antiheroes, even. Just millions and millions of people, all dealing with their own individual end times. Thanks to Lindelof and his sensitive, subtle cast, we get to know a handful of them, and through them, we get to imagine how we might fare if their shock were our own. Brenneman is especially affecting as the mute but conflicted Laurie; she transforms what could have come off as a cold, writerly conceit into a believable, even identifiable, human being.

Despite the parallels to Lost, The Leftovers isn't a potboiler; you aren't desperate, by design, to watch the next episode as soon as the previous one ends. But over time, the show's uncanny mood begins to take on its own momentum, and the weird details begin to pile up: Holy Wayne's wild eyes; hands that burst into flames; the vacuous faces of the Guilty Remnant. It feels like a fever dream that you can't quite wake up from, even when you turn off the TV. And I mean that as a compliment.

Don't get me wrong. The Leftovers isn't perfect. At times it can seem too proud of its virtuous noncommerciality; its slowness can seem shallow, its artiness willful. I'm still not sure what kind of show it wants to be; there's a meandering, even flailing quality to the narrative that won't sit well with viewers who don't have the patience for, say, an entire episode about a strident local minister's Job-like attempt to scrounge up the cash to save his church. But I'm going to stick with it. Why? Because I think Lindelof and Perrotta's vision is coming into focus. As sci-fi as the whole "Sudden Departure" premise is, The Leftovers is ultimately about two things that happen to all of us: mystery and loss. People disappearing is no more or less mysterious than the fact that people even exist in the first place. The latter is just a mystery that we're used to. Grief forces us to recognize it for what it is.

So does The Leftovers. In the pilot, Kevin visits the break room at City Hall. He puts a bagel in the conveyer toaster, but it never comes out the other end. He's baffled. He asks the mayor if she swiped his snack. She looks at him as if he's crazy. This must be some sort of sign, he seems to be thinking. And then, about a day later, it hits him. He returns to the break room. He unscrews the back of the toaster. He reaches in—and pulls out the charred bagel, one half at a time.