Is 'Leftovers' too bleak, even for a golden age of dark storytelling?
We've had fantasy and crime, now it's time for a bit of post-apocalypse TV, says Sarah Hughes
They forced us to scour the internet for the key to the Yellow King after watching True Detective, convinced us to fall in love with fantasy via Game of Thrones and even managed to make us eager to spend each week in Baltimore thanks to The Wire. Now HBO is hoping that audiences will tune in to find out what happens after the end of the world.
Last week saw the US debut of The Leftovers, which will air on Sky Atlantic this autumn. Adapted from Tom Perrotta's bestselling novel by Damon Lindelof, the man behind the mystical island drama Lost, and starring Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler and Christopher Eccleston, it's arguably HBO's most risky drama yet.
On the surface, The Leftovers appears a fairly straightforward proposition: there's a small-town setting (upstate New York), an attractive cast (Theroux, currently better known for his writing and as the partner of Jennifer Aniston, is particularly good as the troubled local police chief), and strong source material (Perrotta's 2011 novel was a New York Times Notable Book). Yet what makes it such a gamble is the subject matter.
Set three years after 2pc of the world's population have disappeared in a mysterious Rapture-like event, The Leftovers is concerned not with what happened to the departed but with how it affected those left behind. The result is a brooding, pain-filled examination of grief and loss that is, in the opening episode at least, quietly devastating to watch.
"We're really exploring the struggle to continue after an event like that and whether or not the world has completely changed," says Perrotta, who helped adapt his novel. "It's about the human hunger for answers."
Early reaction in the US has been mixed, and while critics have praised the show's strong writing and almost hypnotic atmosphere, there have been suggestions that the premise is simply too bleak. The opening episode drew a respectable if not earth-shattering 1.8m US viewers, but industry eyes are on tonight's ratings, with social media commentary suggesting the show is too depressing to be a hit.
"This is a golden age of really dark storytelling, but it is possible that we may have gone too dark; we'll find out," admits Perrotta.
Matters are further complicated by the legacy of Lost. Lindelof admits he struggled to come to terms with the opprobrium the show's ambiguous, quasi-religious ending received, and much of the early criticism surrounding The Leftovers centres on the fact it is a drama not about what happened to make these people disappear but rather one about what happens after they're gone.
Lindelof and Perrotta are not alone in viewing the apocalypse as a jumping-off point for discussing how we deal with loss and grief: a large swath of recent and upcoming fiction tackles the question not of how does the world end but what happens to those who survive?
"I was interested in what remains after an event like this," says Emily St John Mandel, whose ambitious and addictive soon-to-be-published novel, Station Eleven, is set 19 years after a pandemic has devastated the world. "You can lose almost everything and still have memory, friendship and loss."
Perrotta, who wrote The Leftovers in part as a response to the events of 9/11 a decade earlier, agrees. "I researched a lot of Rapture literature because millions of Americans believe this will happen in their time, and what struck me was that these books left out the grief. I felt that the main truth was that those who were left would feel grief and bewilderment and a need to understand what had occurred."
Yet while such dark and difficult themes are easily absorbed on the page, they can overwhelm on the television screen. The opening episode of The Leftovers contains numerous scenes that hit extraordinarily close to home for anyone who has experienced the devastating numbness of grief, and the show's success or otherwise may ultimately be determined by our capacity to experience pain in the name of entertainment. © Guardian