In over 40 years of existence, HBO has never wanted to make things easy. With The Leftovers, adapted from the novel by Tom Perrotta, it seems to willfully succumb to difficulty; this show is roughly sci-fi, roughly post-apocalyptic and roughly religious. Taking on that kind of toll is taking the risk of being misunderstood.
The central premise of The Leftovers is that two percent of the world’s population simply vanished on one October 14th. We see a glimpse of the event during the Pilot’s opening scene, followed then by an abrupt three-year jump forward, where we stay with all those left behind, the leftovers.
The series tackles the ordinariness of how the people of the fictional Mapleton, New York try to continue living after the death of a significant part of them. The lack of explanation, the inability to make a rational and understandable response, maintains pain and prevents the necessary mourning which all of them crave for comfort. This is where the spirituality comes on screen.
We primarily follow the Garvey family, headed by Kevin (Justin Theroux) and Laurie (Amy Brenneman) amongst their kids, as they cope with the mystery of The Disappearance, but still must get on with their lives.
Local priest Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) meanwhile attempts to convince the town’s people that it wasn’t the real Rapture, handing out flyers exposing the sins of some of those who have disappeared. He keeps preaching but gradually loses everything but his faith.
On the other hand, there is Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), some guru who makes absurd claims in Texas, but who must be a fake, though is crazy enough to make everyone believe him. For a price, he helps people to forget and free them from grief with a hug. He tells his followers that “The grace period’s over”, considering that the Rapture happened three years ago, and that the true Fall is coming.
The people of Mapleton want to move on, but are prevented from mourning by a sect called “The Guilty Remnants”, a group whose members only wear white and spend their time smoking cigarette after cigarette as if to illustrate that any sense of hope continually goes up in smoke. Their mission is to remind everyone of The Disappearance by standing silent outside people’s homes, or breaking into them.
“But you’re talking about the Bible. We’re trying to have a secular conversation here”.
Indeed spirituality is a major motif in The Leftovers, with its cults and debates on scripture, but the show is not itself religious. The central conflict is how the characters cope with The Disappearance. Season one never loses track of its broken characters at the core of a bleak show.
It would rather focus on Kevin Garvey killing stray dogs, Nora buying her family’s favorite food when they’re all gone, or Meg joining the Remnants, where other shows would chose to explore what happened to those who disappeared.
Ultimately The Leftovers isn’t about the mystery of tragedy, but the mystery of how to find hope and move on. Those who don’t give up early on the season before reaching the end of its 10 episodes will see it steadily drift towards the light.
By the end of the first season, most of the characters do move on. Even though some of the questions haven’t found any answer, the show reaches something of an understanding on the characters’ part. We may then wonder, if the second season, announced by HBO, is all that necessary, given the satisfying closure coped with by the end of the this one.