It's really hard to tell what HBO show will survive and which one won't, which, I suppose, is a good metaphor for the plot of its newest show, The Leftovers. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (Little Children), the premise is that 2 percent of the human population has spontaneously disappeared, leaving loved ones behind to try and make sense of the loss. As with The Walking Dead, it's a show about the ancillary detritus of calamity, not the calamity itself. How many times have you heard, "It's not about the zombies, but about the people who are forced to live in a zombie apocalypse?" Well, get ready for, "It's not the Rapture, it's the people who are forced to live in a post-Rapture world."
People die every day, but when people die or disappear en masse we have a tendency to romanticize or fetishize it. 9/11 comes to mind. Coping with such events manifests as groupthink, revenge, unity. This is the idea behind The Leftovers.
In the opening scene of the first episode, a flustered woman is at the laundromat with her crying baby, juggling arguing on her cellphone with some customer service rep while loading up her clothes. She's doing three things at once (we can all relate). She hurries with her laundry and her baby out to her car, jostles the wailing baby into its car seat, and then sits in the driver's side and finishes up another call, only to turn around and find her baby gone. Just: gone. She jumps out of the car and calls his name. In the background, cars without drivers veer off the road and slam into things. Stunned people freeze. It's heart-wrenching and fast, and a great introduction to the crucial moment that is the basis for the entire show.
If you think that sounds bleak, you are right. This show is what a critic might call "atmospheric," but everyone else would dub "depressing." Justin Theroux plays the main sad-sack, though I must say I had no idea what a talented actor he is; perhaps I thought him cursed since he's dating the queen of the pedestrian romantic comedies, Jennifer Aniston. He plays Kevin Garvey, chief of police for his medium-size New York town. His wife has run off and joined a cult called The Guilty Remnant that exists to smoke cigarettes, wear white, eschew talking, and remind the suburbs that the Rapture is not to be swept under the rug. His son is off chasing some guru, and his teenage daughter is drowning her pain in booze-fueled high school orgies. Packs of wild dogs roam the streets and rifle-toting yahoos clip them off.
There's a lot simmering here, but I'm scared. I've seen promising HBO shows start out great, with wonderful premises, and then get bogged down in ever-weaker plotting. Big Love comes to mind. It was a show about polygamy focusing on a family with three wives and its attempt to juggle non-monogamy with the very real need to hide it all from the rest of the world. On around the second season my mind began to wander like a Mormon settlement and I stopped watching. The same goes for Deadwood, which was full of great actors but always seemed to nip any really compelling plot devices in the bud. True Blood got tedious for me by season two as well.
So perhaps you understand my fear that The Leftovers will surrender totally to its angst and forgo entertainment. Garvey's teenage daughter Jill, played by Margaret Qualley, has the potential to run an entire My So-Called Life season and, frankly, has most of my attention. She has a crush on a boy that her best friend sleeps with in the first episode after "winning" the ultimate spin-the-bottle prize. What's less interesting is the guru subplot: "Holy" Wayne Gilchrest (played by Paterson Joseph) is a dude who doles out magical hugs and has devoted followers. This whole story feels like one of the lesser conflicts on True Blood.
Liv Tyler, meanwhile, plays a bride-to-be who finds the whole idea of marriage (heck, life itself) meaningless and wants to be completely swallowed by the Guilty Remnant. She doesn't turn herself over body and mind immediately, but once she does, she does.
Any one of the show's stories could be the focus of its own series. Let's hope HBO can marry them all into one satisfying arc that has staying power... and not one of those old, reheated others.