Television is still recovering from LOST. Even after the gush of gunk like The Event, mystery-clusterfucks populated by CW second-stringers playing important children and men with briefcases that could change everything, we still eye overly ambitious new series like wary rescue dogs creeping out of our crates. We've been burned before, and again, and again. That's why The Leftovers, HBO's new feel-bad drama, matters.
Three years ago, a rapture happened. Not the Rapture, mind you. There's nothing notable or prophetic about the date (October 14), no trumpets are sounded, Aziz Ansari doesn't fall into a yawning chasm. Just, one afternoon, simultaneously people disappear, two percent of them globally, with no apparent logic to those taken. The Leftovers picks up three years later on the anniversary of the disappearances in small town Mapleton, NY. People are still living, but mostly, they're coping, or doing their best impression of it. It's hard to know how to heal when you still have no idea what's done the damage.
That's what's striking about The Leftovers: the disappearances are the show's Big Bang, setting every other aspect of it in motion, but there's no understanding it, and that's the point. Experts, investigators, and religious leaders are baffled to the point of outright saying, "I don't know." Worldwide, everyone has the same set of no data. The show sets total ambiguity as the center of its universe, but ironically, there's hardly anything ambiguous about it: this is a show about people beating themselves bloody trying to open the mystery box, not about what's inside. If everyone who disappeared was instead crushed by a white whale falling out of the sky, you'd basically have the same show.
The Leftovers was adapted by Damon Lindelof from a Tom Perrotta novel; he's half of the Lindelof-Cuse team that helmed most of LOST, so he got half the hate LOST ended up generating, i.e., he's the recipient of infinite hate. On the surface, LOST hate revolved around the panoply of unsolved mysteries kicked endlessly from one "There's no time to explain!" to the next. Every blanket we had to build our fort with turned out to be a pile of loose threads. The real casualty, though, was its characters, who spent six seasons struggling to live and love and die and care within a universe that kept promising them something for their troubles and kept coming up short. The finale insisted that all that with the polar bears and the electromagnetism had always been about the characters, but the show's fault lines were in their DNA, too.
With The Leftovers, though, the characters aren't buffeted by mysteries. There's just the one, and it's too immense to even try to start to solve. And besides, the world's kind of going to shit, even as it keeps on going. Teens are still doing sex and drug stuff, a little harder and a little weirder. Everyone's on edge. At the center of the mix you've got the Garvey family: cop dad, disaffected daughter, militant(?) son, and cultist wife. Dad's straining to keep law and order in a town that's starting to wonder why they need either while struggling to stay a father to his daughter, and the other half of the family have gone in their own true believer directions. The disappearances threw a cherry bomb in their collective laps, and now we're watching them individually trying to hold it together while falling apart.
The show builds around waves of reaction, with no smoke monster lurking to fuck up a perfectly good character arc, and there's profundity in leaving characters with nothing but themselves and each other to make sense of the seismic shift in their world. Of course, people will gravitate towards answers, and that's how you get the Guilty Remnant, chainsmoking, Liv Tyler-stalking cultists who've bought up a cul-de-sac with nihilistic penance as their apparent endgame. They're antagonists in the literal sense. They provoke with their presence, bringing out all the nastiness and brutality in people that seethes way closer to the surface since the disappearances, turning a memorial statue unveiling into a bloody brawl.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's Wayne, the guru at the center of a militaristic compound where Son Garvey's living and working. Wayne makes me anxious. Wayne, apparently, has answers. And prophecy dreams. Wayne's got Walt Syndrome. There's a cute girl in the compound that Wayne insists is important to what's to come. So much of the pilot feels human and vital; Wayne feels like a Lindelof android, a character I can't buy into because he's programmed from afar, tuned into radio waves from the writers' room.
There was a time when Wayne would have excited me (when I could still trust), but now he makes me mad and sad and scared for a show I want to succeed on its own terms. Where white male antihero shows so often fall back on the lazy refrain of "Ambiguity!" to cover up an empty core, The Leftovers seems seriously interested in honestly exploring just how crazy we can go when there's no answers but real insurmountable ambiguity staring us in the face. More than more mysteries, that's what television needs.