The Leftovers, Sky Atlantic
The Leftovers, a greatly hyped new drama from HBO, was so unremittingly grim that when a glimmer of humour manifested towards the end of the first episode it felt like there had been a rip in the space time continuum. As grumpy police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) propped up the bar, salving his woes with an umpteenth beer of the night, a TV flashed images of celebrities who vanished during a mysterious, 'Rapture' like happening three years previously. Pope Benedict, Salman Rushdie, Mariah Carey, reality TV star Gary Busey had, we learned, all been whisked from existence, along with 180 million others. "The Pope I get," said the barman." But Gary f***ing Busey? Come on."
It was a solitary chuckle-out-loud moment in a show that otherwise pressed down on you like an oppressive heat. Adapted from Tom Perrotta's novel, The Leftovers has been described as the 'new Lost' – though, considering the old Lost ultimately amounted to half a decade of quasi-mystical hooey and surely the worst denouement in television history (belated spoiler alert: everyone was dead all along), it is unclear whether we are to take that as recommendation or warning.
Of course, along with the incoherent plot, Lost was zippy and pulpy so that you could set the mythology aside and enjoy it as small screen b-movie. In contrast, The Leftovers was endlessly portentous. Here was one of those shows where characters constantly stared into space, letting tensed jaw muscles and knotted brows do the acting for them. Dogs were shot, meaningless sex had, lips pursed as Philip Glass-style piano fugues puttered in the background. Short of setting the action in Siberia in deepest winter it's hard to imagine how more ennui the producers could have slapped on.
The Leftovers opened with a brief glimpse of the 'Sudden Departure', an event not far removed from the actual spiritual reckoning American Evangelicals believe could rock mankind at any moment. A mother was on the phone when her infant stopped crying with chilling finality. A little boy shopping with his father turned to discover he was alone. A car, rendered driverless, smacked into a bus. In a heartbeat two per cent of the world's population was gone – and nobody knew how, why, or where.
Three years on, humankind was in the early stages of grief. Science was stumped as to the cause of the Departure and in the gulf between mystery and ignorance cults were springing up. In sleepy upstate New York chief Garvey (Theroux, doing a good job keeping his handsomeness on a leash) sleepwalked through his job, barely communicating with daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), a former straight-a student turned depressive who acted out her pain by clocking rivals on the hockey field. They were mourning wife and mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman) – not 'departed' but in the embrace of doomsday cult Guilty Remnants, whose members chugged cigarettes as a gesture of devotion, communicated by scribbling on A4 pads and dressed head-to-toe in white in the fashion of minor early 2000s indie band The Polyphonic Spree.
Meanwhile, Garvey's son Tommy (Chris Zylka) had taken up with scary charismatic Wayne Gilchrest (Paterson Joseph), a Jim Jones type who hid out in a compound and said things like 'a great reckoning is about to happen'. Curiously, scenes featuring The Leftovers' other big star, Liv Tyler, felt like an afterthought: she was Megan Abbott, a sad-eye fiance who couldn't bear discuss wedding plans over a slap-up dinner with her intended, such were the depths of her existential woe.
For a series about the sudden disappearance of millions, The Leftovers was curiously low on supernatural elements, which may have disappointed Lost fans tuning in out of curiosity. In fact, there was little overt drama of any sort. Mostly it felt like a study in mourning. The colour scheme was monochrome , the soundtrack by every indication designed to lower your pulse. For viewers of a specific temperament – i.e. those who prefer their entertainment glacial and grim – the maudlin cadences doubtless cast a spell. However, to approach the cult acclaim of Lost The Leftovers needs to shake off the torpor and give audiences something to cling onto. A Gary Busey gag was a start. But The Leftovers still has a lot to do if it is to live up to its billing as the season's hottest new show.