There was always a lot riding on “The Leftovers,” being the first new drama to air on HBO right after the universally lauded “True Detective.” And true, the new drama based on the Tom Perrotta best-seller, written by Damon Lindelof and directed by Peter Berg is no “True Detective,” but it is compelling in its own way, with its own complicated characters and mysteries to unravel.
The show opens in spectacularly dramatic fashion as 2% of the world’s population instantaneously disappearances, leaving mothers without infants and cars without drivers to run amuck, but picks up 3 years later on the eve of the anniversary of the event, to a much quieter existence for those left behind. TV footage shows that no experts have any clue about what happened, and there are plenty of people still struggling to move on. Though the world seems the same as it had been 3 years ago, the unrest buried just beneath the surface is quickly revealed.
The bulk of the story follows the fractured Garvey family, none of whom had been Raptured, but somehow all fell apart anyway. Dad Kevin (Justin Theroux) is the Chief of Police trying furiously to stop a Day of Heroes anniversary event, knowing it will stir up ire, while mom Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has left the family to join a cult that sprang up in the Rapture aftermath who call themselves the Guilty Remnant. They wear all white, never speak, and stalk emotionally vulnerable residents around town while chain-smoking. Oldest son Tom (Chris Zylka) is off at a different cult, working for an alleged miracle man named Wayne, who has a little problem with liking underage women. And daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is going through her teenage rebellion thing.
The first two episodes, directed by Berg, introduce us to the Garveys and a variety of satellite characters, including a vigilante out shooting dogs that turned wild after the Rapture, who may or may not be a figment of Kevin’s imagination. Liv Tyler’s Meg is also introduced as a new recruit of the Guilty Remnant (GR). Berg, in some ways a complete 180 from “True Detective’s” slow-and-steady Cary Fukunaga, gives a sense of immediacy and urgency to the first two episodes, building tension and danger easily, culminating in some action scenes that are far more exciting than they have any right to be on an otherwise character-driven show. The problem – to make it a hyperbole – with the characters is that it’s not entirely clear why the Garveys are so dysfunctional, especially since as far as the Rapture goes, they were not immediately affected at all. They seem to have disintegrated all on their own, for reasons that will hopefully come into focus in later episodes.
Episode three, a somewhat jarring stand-alone story solely following the story of the town’s doggedly persistent pastor, is also surprisingly the show’s strongest thus far. Credit must be paid to Christopher Eccelston, who takes his character Matt Jaminson through a wide range of roller coaster emotions and life events over the course of 24 hours as he fights to save his church. It’s almost a shame the story will probably return mostly to the Garveys, because Jaminson himself could be a completely watchable show on his own, with all the shades of a grey of a complicated man trying desperately to do what he believes is right but pushed increasingly to the edge.
To the betterment of the show, perhaps in a wink and nod to the answers that were promised but never came on “Lost,” the issue of how or why the Departured disappeared is merely background noise and barely figures at all into the ongoing stories. “The Leftovers” is true to its title and remains intensely focused on characters and relationships, many of which are still being slowly peeled back. But it’s off to a very strong start.
“The Leftovers” premieres Sunday, June 29th at 9pm on HBO.