There shouldn’t be any question that HBO’s latest much-watch series, the Damon Lindelof- and Tom Perrotta-created The Leftovers, is a feel-good affair, but let’s clarify things, just for good measure: this is not a feel-good affair. Based on Perrotta’s novel of the same name, the series (which premiered last night on the cable channel) picks up three years after two percent of the world’s population went – poof – up in totally metaphorical smoke. Two percent of the world, just gone, vanished, vamoosed, missing, possibly raptured (though the first episode of the series does, quite memorably, include a talking head news program that features a host that refuses to acknowledge the possibility that this was “the Rapture” or in any way a religious act), leaving behind the vast majority of the human population, all damaged in their own way. No, really damaged.
The whole thing is black as night – The Leftovers isn’t witty like Election or biting like Little Children, Perrotta’s best known big screen adaptions – but it’s moving and unnerving in its own way. The show is mostly without levity or humor, and is often so self-serious as to feel a smidge too heavy-handed (mainly thanks to an overwrought and occasionally awkward score and a series of smash cuts that grate), but it’s still entertaining and very watchable – though binge watching seems particularly ill-advised. In fact, The Leftovers is a show that’s designed to not appeal to the binging masses, if only because it’s too damn hard to swallow in anything else than a force-fed one-hour bite.
The series is principally set in Mapleton, New York, a sleepy enough small town, the kind that’s good for this sort of nuanced look at a select group of people, all loosely connected, but not the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else’s name. Although the show’s cast of characters is varied and wide-ranging, it finds its center in Justin Theroux’s chief of police Kevin Garvey (in Perrotta’s novel, Kevin is a recent retiree who eventually becomes town mayor, and this tweak to his character’s occupation is like a solid one). Like most people we meet in Mapleton, Kevin is sort of holding things together (he goes to work, he eats meals, he appears to be engaging in normal hygiene), though some big demons lurk so close to the surface that you can practically see their little horns and forked tails float by when the camera gets close enough to the actor. Eventually, the series subtly suggests that Kevin is hallucinating things and acting out in increasingly worrisome (and possibly illegal) ways.
Although Kevin didn’t lose any of his family during “the event,” he lost them later – his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined up with a local cult, his son Tom (Chris Zylka) is off with another kind of questionably structured group and his teen daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley, lucky enough to have the show’s most sympathetic character, good enough to make her compelling) is going through all regular teen troubles, with the added pressure of the event making everything seem that much more awful. Other people in town have lost people, too, both to the event and to other influences (that damn cult, the “Guilty Remnant,” is a real beast, and Carrie Coon’s character, who lost her entire family, is particularly unsettling), and the effect is an entire town – an entire show, an entire world – made up of angry, depressed, terrified people.
It wears. Two episodes into The Leftovers (the magic of screeners), and I was done. The show is stressful, grating and exhausting. It’s somehow both entertaining and revolting. I wanted to get away from it. I wanted to leave my apartment just to remove myself from the anthropomorphized presence of the innocuous DVD box that contains the episodes, innocently sitting on a dresser, practically leering at me. They wanted to be watched, but I didn’t want to be the one to do the watching. I felt tired, and all I’d done was watch two hours of television in my sunny bedroom.
I wanted to punch something (anything) after 120 or so minutes of The Leftovers, appropriate considering how many punches are thrown in the first episode alone (turns out, people deep in mourning kind of freak out when preachy cult members show up to essentially protest their public remembrance of their missing – who knew?). The Leftovers pushed me to a visceral reaction, the likes of which I haven’t felt – at least, in this apparently negative way – in years. Yet, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my watching or that I’m not looking forward to more (eventually, once I forget just how exhausting the endeavor can be).
Oddly, this means that The Leftovers is working. This is not a show that has aimed for levity and light and fallen short – this is deep, awful stuff that is unashamed to be hard to watch and hard to take. Still, it’s hard to ascertain just yet what the payoff of this will be or if it will eventually turn into something part of the murkily named “misery porn” genre – the series’ first season is ten episodes, and while it has not yet been renewed, the show is not imagined or billed as a limited event. This is not True Detective or American Horror Story, this series could go down this path for plenty more seasons. I could potentially feel bad about this show (literally!) for actual years. It’s open-ended at this point, but one thing is set in stone – this is not a show I’ll ever binge watch, and I suspect that’s a sentiment that many people will share once they even try it. Sometimes, small doses aren’t so bad, especially when it comes to the bitter stuff.
Are you going to watch The Leftovers? Which shows are too hard for you to binge watch?