After a 9/11 or a Sandy Hook, a certain amount of ink is spilled reporting on instances of humanity rising above whatever horror has befallen—unaffected families rallying around neighbors who've lost loved ones, or whatever else tidily encapsulates kindness, empathy, and the resilience of our human spirit. The occasionally ugly flip side, though, is that there's healing and camaraderie to be found in banding together against a common enemy. Pointing a finger feels so much better when everyone around you is pointing theirs in the same direction. But what happens when there are lots of fingers itching to point, and nowhere to point them? Blame will always find a place—but that doesn't mean it'll be the right place.
Tom Perrotta's understatedly great 2011 book The Leftovers imagines a tragedy without a perpetrator, no person or entity on which the like-minded and grieving can focus their ire, a rapturelike event that disappears 2 percent of the world's population. The entire planet is affected, but not enough that daily life can't basically carry on the way it has been, albeit in a world in which everyone is either grief stricken, has severe PTSD, or is suffering some degree of survivor's guilt. It's a darkly funny premise—especially in Perrotta's hands—but it's hardly treated that way on the mostly humorless, overwrought HBO series that Perrotta, sadly, helped create and write.
In its very first scene the show diverges from the book by showing us what happened on October 14, the day of the disappearances. A harried mother is in the throes of a domestic tragedy—bringing heaps of dirty laundry to the Laundromat because her basement is flooded—not to mention that she's toting around an inconsolable infant. She places her baby into the car seat, gets into the front seat, and then the crying stops. The camera pans to reveal that the car seat is empty. Moments later a little boy in the parking lot cries out for his dad, who was right there a second before. A suddenly unmanned car careens into another on an adjacent street. The mother is reduced to hysterics as she screams and screams her infant son's name.
The show then jumps ahead to three years after the disappearances, which, to my recollection, is where the book began; I suppose that in adapting it to a visual medium like TV, the temptation to offer a glimpse at the actual tragedy in question was too great to just move into its somewhat distant aftermath. I don't begrudge the writers that, but it also says a lot about the tone of the storytelling, which borders on soap operatic.
The story's microcosmic world—a Perrotta specialty—is the small fictional town of Mapleton, New York, which lost roughly 100 people to the disappearance. The town's police chief, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), and his family were spared any loss, but have been torn apart all the same—his son has joined a hedonistic cult in the desert that follows a messiah figure named Wayne, and more recently his wife has joined the Guilty Remnant, a local cult that requires its members to take vows of silence, take up chain smoking—why not smoke when nothing matters?—and systematically stalk individual townspeople until they give in and join the GR themselves. And, hey, it occasionally works. Garvey's daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), is reeling from the loss of her mother, a sort of delayed casualty of the disappearance—but sort of worse because it was voluntary—and is putting in angry-teen overtime.
There's a malaise that hums through every person, every conversation, every puff off a cigarette. Sitting in a bar one night, Garvey makes a flaccid attempt at levity and raises a glass to the woman seated next to him, who happens to be the Laundromat mother from the opening scene. "Hey, we're still here," he says. "We sure are," she replies, sort of rolling her eyes. He knows as well as she does that being a leftover is a curse as much as it is a blessing.
And mostly Garvey exists with his brow furrowed. He's charged with keeping order in a town that's becoming a powder keg of tension thanks to the GR and its growing ranks. A man in a pickup truck without tags is driving around killing stray dogs with a shotgun. His son's far-flung physically and his daughter is even more distant emotionally. He butts heads with his superior, a hard-ass mayor who knows best even when she doesn't and says "fuck" a lot. The book's Garvey was actually the mayor rather than the police chief, a sort of consummate nice guy charged not with keeping order, but with maintaining a facade of normalcy. Justin Theroux is fine, but the show might've benefited from that version of Garvey, just for some emotional variety in an hour full of straight-faced, languid performances.
Several slow-motion sequences and the overwrought score really test our stomachs for melodrama; they stood out as reminders that even though it's HBO, in this case, it's still TV.