Late into the premiere of “The Leftovers,” HBO’s dark new drama, I laughed out loud. The show is set three years after 2 percent of the population has mysteriously disappeared into thin air, and a cable news channel playing in a bar is exploiting the anniversary of “The Sudden Departure.” While TV pundits natter on about God’s will, atheism, and science, a loud clash of self-righteous speechifying, the channel flashes the faces of famous people who vanished on that day — Condoleezza Rice, Bonnie Raitt, Salman Rushdie, Pope Benedict, and, oh yeah, GARY BUSEY.
What a funny little flourish, throwing such a reality TV-ized screwball into the mix, a jester among cultural royals. It’s a “True Blood” kind of move, a camp joke for those who are paying attention. Also funny: A lightning-fast cameo by Tom Perrotta, the Boston-based author of the “Leftovers” novel and co-creator of the series, sporting a handlebar mustache and an incongruous soul patch.
But “The Leftovers” isn’t nearly a comedy. The jokes are rare exceptions in this uncompromisingly serious drama, which moves operatically from trauma to trauma, almost exhibitionistic in its grimness. The action is set in a classic American suburb with the idyllic name of Mapleton — the kind of suburb Perrotta is famous for exploring in his fiction. But the residents are living in hell, still working to get their heads around the Sudden Departure, fractured into warring schools of reaction — the grievers, the guilt-stricken, the enraged, the despairing, the callous, and the confused. In the premiere of the 10-episode season, Sunday night at 10, Mapleton’s third-anniversary tribute to the lost inevitably turns into a violent melee.
At the center of the show, trying to hold Mapleton together, is police chief Kevin Garvey, played with a relentlessly furrowed brow by Justin Theroux. Garvey is a mess, suffering from nightmares that could have ties to reality, in which he is merging identities with a man out shooting stray dogs. His 17-year-old daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), has become a cynical depressive. His son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has left college to serve a twisted Departure guru selling salvation through hugs. His cop father had a nervous breakdown. And his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has moved in with a post-Departure cult called the Guilty Remnant, who live in McMansions, refuse to speak, chain-smoke cigarettes, and wear only white. They target vulnerable residents, such as Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler), stalking them and luring them into their haven of hopelessness.
As you can tell, “The Leftovers” delivers a strange and unique world, and it takes some getting used to. The show definitely has a futuristic, dystopian vibe, particularly with the Guilty Remnant lurking around like Mapleton’s own White Walkers. But then it’s not science fiction; Perrotta and co-creator Damon Lindelof have come up with a raw, heated-up microcosm of the real world, our post-9/11 society splintered by political extremism, mass shootings, fear, and grief. When he reviewed Perrotta’s novel in The New York Times, Stephen King called it “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw,” a description that comes close to evoking the heavy, morally charged atmosphere of the series.
Ultimately, I wish Perrotta and Lindelof hadn’t chosen such an amphetamine, shock-a-minute pace for the show. “The Leftovers” is at the other end of the slow-drama trend ushered in by “Breaking Bad,” as every scene seems to explode with action and misery. We don’t get enough of a sense of the characters’ ordinary emotional lives, which means we can’t easily bond with them; we only see their feverish flares of anger and their smoldering discontent as the episodes run forward. If we could spend a few subtle minutes with a character such as Kevin, look into his eyes and feel his sorrow, the show would have a more honest emotional potency. Instead, we are kept at a distance, watching him and the rest of Mapleton show us over and over just how wretched they are, grabbing at our heads but not our hearts with all of their big torment.
The inexorable death-march tone also tramples the potential for humor, which is too bad. Sometimes, a dark moment is made all the more poignant when treated with a lighter touch. Occasionally, I wanted “The Leftovers” to stop telling us — or even yelling at us — that what’s happening in Mapleton is profound; we get it. Turn down the manipulative soundtrack, relax, and tell a human-scaled story with a few wry asides. Put away the mass hysteria for at least a few minutes every hour.
But that said, Perrotta and Lindelof are working with an admirably rich premise, which is: How do we deal with the pure randomness of death and life? The show is an attempt to take on one of the most difficult facets of the human condition without any indirection or disguise. “Lost” was a giant mystery, and in every episode we were trying to figure out what was going on. “The Leftovers” doesn’t much bother trying to explain the Sudden Departure. It’s all about the aftermath of inexplicable loss, the way we thinking creatures work to rationalize the sheer arbitrariness and impermanence of our existence.
It’s the kind of big questioning that informs the great TV dramas, like the issues of change and power that underpinned “Breaking Bad” and the queries about death that made “Six Feet Under” so haunting. But those shows had what “The Leftovers” needs to cultivate, and may cultivate before all is said and done: characters who, underneath all the madness and loud anguish, have souls.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.