Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston in "The Leftovers" (HBO)
Though I wasn’t a huge fan of his first show, “Lost,” Damon Lindelof’s new HBO series, “The Leftovers,” reminds me an awful lot of it. It isn’t anything to do with the plot that leads me to draw those comparisons, but structurally it’s quite similar. It starts three years after the “The Sudden Departure,” a seemingly random event in which two percent of the world’s population literally and inexplicably vanishes into thin air. Like “Lost,” it features a mysterious disaster and follows a crowded cast of characters as they try to navigate through the circumstances. Even more like “Lost,” it’s extremely vague and increasingly frustrating.
Though it features solid performances and beautiful camera work, the subject matter puts a damper on things. Not because it’s dark or challenging, but because the audience is given so little to work with in terms of narrative that it makes even the most basic of exchanges a struggle to understand. I realize the first episode is a pilot and that raising questions is the main prerogative, but for a premise as high-concept as this, it would only help itself by keeping viewers somewhat aware of what’s going on.
The way it delves into the aftermath three years after the disappearance could have been a great decision, skipping all the melodrama of the disastrous event and instead focusing on the consequences and rippling effects among the survivor community. But through bypassing the initial melodrama, Lindelof chooses to explore the much less interesting three-years-later melodrama. Like a show without focus, the plot wanders from character to character without establishing anything substantial about who they are in this world of survivors.
We witness the interactions between them, though they make little sense as we don’t know who they are, what their struggles are or who they’ve lost. The deepest revelation offered is that this character and that are brothers, that boy is that man’s son. These, “surprise, they’re related!” moments fall flat and uninteresting in a world where hundreds of millions of people could go missing again at any time for any reason.
Instead we sit through forced scenes and random beats that attempt to inject drama into a lifeless vessel rather than letting the drama flourish on its own, leaving an impression of self-importance bordering on pretension. One scene in particular, (or rather, a collection of scenes) in which Justin Theroux’s character encounters a large elk intermittently through the episode, leaves me feeling completely lost in senselessness, not only in terms of story but in terms of style, raising questions about what should or shouldn’t be expected from this universe.
The concept borders on science fiction, though Lindelof seems to have opted for a darker, slice-of-life tone in which ordinary human drama is extracted from extraordinary circumstances. I’m not sure how I feel about that decision, especially since he decided that a full 72 minutes was needed rather than the customary 45 to 55 to tell his story.
Extended episodes don’t usually air unless something big is happening that requires the extra time to say what it needs. In the case of “The Leftovers,” I find it hard to discern what the show is even about, much less what it’s trying to say.
I’m not completely writing it off; I’ll watch a few more episodes to see where it goes, but I resent the fact that I have to watch idly and uninterested simply because I don’t know the universe well enough to call bullshit. They have taken away the ability to question things by stripping the show of any direct meaning. I can’t praise or discredit it because I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
Nonetheless, it is still only the first episode, and it has some time to shift gears. Hopefully Lindelof learned from “Lost” and helps “The Leftovers” find its way to some answers rather than more questions.
Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO
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