This week marks the debut of a cracking new drama series called The Leftovers, a 10-part enigma with a metaphysical bent and a sci-fi twinge that rocks up to UK shores courtesy of Sky Atlantic. It’s a cryptic and generally captivating show that ponders some of life’s grand mysteries, such as “Are we alone in the universe?” or “What is the true purpose of grief?” And, perhaps most terrifying of all, “Is the world finally ready to forgive Damon Lindelof?”
You’ll recognise Lindelof as the co-creator and showrunner of Lost, the world’s foremost infuriating long-form fantasy about unfeasibly attractive people mucking around on a ridiculous island. You know, like Thunderbirds, but without the gravitas or narrative realism. The general consensus on Lost was that it started well, but gradually disappeared up its own posterior with all the style and grace of a pineapple suppository. It was the ‘Yodel’ of television shows, promising much, but delivering little. Nevertheless, we still watched the bleeding thing, tuning in week after week for a revelation that never came. A tale full of sound and fury, not to mention inexplicable polar bears, signifying nothing.
Will Lindelof’s latest excursion meander aimlessly down the same tortuous path of its cosmically maligned predecessor? Well, The Leftovers already starts with a marginal advantage, seeing as it’s based on pre-existing material (specifically, co-creator Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name). And the early signs – including a short-ish season order from HBO – suggest a clearer direction this time around. Sure, it’s hokum, but there’s enough intrigue and random barminess here to make a return trip worthwhile.
The Leftovers isn’t so much a “Whodunnit?” as a “Wherethehellarethey?”. The premise is tantalisingly simple: on October 14th, completely out of the blue (and for reasons that cannot be explained), 2 per cent of the world’s population suddenly disappears. Nobody knows where they’ve gone. Nobody sees them vanish. They’re just… absent. Lost in the ether, somehow.
An early sequence depicts this mass exodus (if that’s what’s really going on, although they don’t give anything away in this opening salvo) in the most human of ways. A woman picks up her laundry while chatting to a series of unseen third parties on her mobile telephone. In the background, her baby boy Sam cries incessantly. But rather than pacify him, she pretty much ignores her child, right until the moment he stops crying in the backseat of their car. That’s when Mom turns around from the driver’s seat, and witnesses something approaching a revelation: an empty baby chair. Her son, absent. In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
At this point, a caption handily informs us that we’re jumping Three Years Later, which is when the real story (such as it is) begins. The world is forever changed. At first, everything appears normal, but a sadness pervades. It’s a parallel universe, stitched together by grief. The 9/11 subtext is hard to ignore, except this time it’s a global tragedy, not a localised event. Paranoia abounds, and speculation runs amok regarding the nature of the Sudden Departure. Was it the Rapture? Perhaps some kind of scientific anomaly? Just what on Earth’s going on, if indeed anything’s happening ‘on Earth’ at all? Spiritual uncertainty meets rampant skepticism head-on in a world ripped apart by the instant and altogether unwelcome appearance of magic.
Thus, Lindelof’s ruse is set into motion. Will everything resolve? Or will he keep us hanging? Who knows, but there’s certainly plenty to chew on in the interim. Our guide appears to be Justin Theroux, playing a small town Chief of Police-type character, who’s off the rails, but only slightly. Meanwhile, just up the road, there’s a sinister, chain-smoking(!) cult called the Guilty Remnants, intent on disrupting the everyday lives of the grieving proles. Plus, the neighbourhood dogs are acting very strangely indeed, and there’s a guru called Holy Wayne lording it up in the desert like some type of Jesus figure. Oh, and Liv Tyler turns up, but only for a little while.
Peculiar doesn’t begin to cover it.
Incidentally, despite the grim set-up, The Leftovers is not without humour. In one scene, for example, we see a news report lamenting all of the celebrities lost in the Sudden Disappearance, including such luminaries as Gary Busey and the Pope. Pseudo-philosophising aside, Lindelof’s tongue is still very firmly in his cheek. That’s enough to earn our forgiveness – for now.
Season 1 and 2 of The Leftovers available on Sky Box Sets. Not got Sky? You can watch The Leftovers online on with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription that includes live and on-demand access to Sky Atlantic, Sky 1, FOX UK and more.
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