Here's my advice: Don't watch "The Leftovers" on HBO this Sunday.
It's not that "The Leftovers" is a bad show, although it may yet prove to be. But if you watch "The Leftovers'" dour and monotonous pilot this week, you may not watch it next week, and you may not watch it the week after that, which is when the series takes a quantum leap forward.
There's a lot of world for "The Leftovers," which was adapted by "Lost's" Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta from the latter's novel, to explore, and what makes the show's first two episodes such slow going is the decision to explore all of it at once. Perhaps emboldened by "Game of Thrones'" multi-stranded narrative, the series casts a wide net across the town of Mapleton, New Jersey, whose residents are gearing up to commemorate the third anniversary of the Departure, when two percent of the Earth's population vanished without a trace. Some of them, though not most of the principal characters, lost loved ones on what's habitually referred to as "October 14th," which is all the 9/11 subtext "The Leftovers" needs to keep it going for several seasons.
The central figure, at least so far, is police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who holds the job because its former occupant, his father (Scott Glenn), lost his mind after the Departure. Mapleton's residents deal with the still-unexplained phenomenon different ways: Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members wear white, commit to a vow of silence, and, for some reason, chain-smoke constantly. ("We don’t smoke for enjoyment," says a sign in the house they use as a headquarters. "We smoke to proclaim our faith.") Matt (Christopher Eccleston) dons a clerical collar and hands out leaflets reminding people of the horrible deeds some of the Departures committed—"He Gambled Away His Children's Money!"—lest anyone confuse their disappearance with the Christian Rapture. That there's no rhyme or reason to who Departed and who did not feels like an integral part of "The Leftovers'" worldview. (Lindelof, wary of either stoking or repelling "Lost"-level fandom, won't commit either way.) Imagine 9/11 without Islamic terrorism or the U.S. history of meddling in Middle Eastern politics, only absences and questions that can never be answered.
I'm fine with "The Leftovers" not explaining the Departure, as I would have been fine with "Lost" offering no climactic explanation had the show not spend six seasons promising one. But the idea of a world so consumed by grief that all joy has been sucked out of life is a difficult one to swallow. Our world was irrevocably changed on September 11, 2001, but for those who didn't suffer a personal loss on that day, life returned to something like normality, or we adjusted to think of the way things were as they way they'd always been. It seems almost unimaginable now that there was a time when you could see family members off at the airport gate, or when the political parties seemed so close together that some could argue there was no difference between the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. We told ourselves nothing would ever be the same: It's a testament to both our resiliency and our capacity for denial that we were wrong.
In the world of "The Leftovers," however, everything has changed. In the first two episodes, Kevin tries to find a man who's been shooting dogs in the street. "They're not our dogs," the stranger warns him—and as it turns out, he's right.The first two episodes, both of which were directed by Peter Berg, are almost obsessively dour, which may be what you get when you ask the director of "Battleship" to set the tone for a melancholic mood piece. (Advance copies were not color-corrected, but at this point it looks like whatever force made off with one person in 50 also took with it every color that's not an earth tone.) Berg switches to handheld to goose up the action and opens the second episode with a bloody gun battle that seems designed to jar the audience out of their slumber, but these feel like ploys.
It's worth sticking it out through "The Leftovers'" third episode, which focuses almost exclusively on Matt, the preacher with a penchant for airing Departures' dirty laundry. Eccleston's performance, for which he's adopted an American accent and a much deeper voice, is one-note in the first two episodes, but when he steps into the spotlight, he's able to add nuance and shading to a character who to that point has just seemed like a lunatic annoyance. A clever callback to the pilot helps illustrate how even those who didn't directly lose a loved one in the Departure could be profoundly affected by it, and why he's so obsessed with proving that there's no way to construe who was taken and who stayed as any kind of moral judgement.
There's also a lot of stupid business involving a convenient stash of hidden money and a preposterously fortunate gambling streak, as well as a cringeworthy dream sequence and an ironic music cue so smug and jarring it made me want to hit something. And that, more than anything, is what troubles me about "The Leftovers." Shows grow over the course of a season; they find their footing. But "The Leftovers" is full of so many questionable judgement calls that it starts to feel that Lindelof and Perrotta haven't even decided what kind of show they want to make, let along how they want to go about it. There's enough promise in that third episode to make me curious about whether they'll figure it out. At the moment, it feels like the car's moving, but no one's at the wheel.
The Leftovers premieres June 29 at 10pm on HBO.
More reviews of "The Leftovers":
Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club
"The Leftovers" is still young enough to have some growing pains. There’s material centered on yet another cult (based around a mysterious figure named Wayne) that feels too loosely connected to everything else, and the show can occasionally seem too in love with being grim just for being grim. But on the whole, it’s elegiac, ingenious television, unlike anything else on the air.
James Poniewozik, Time
Even the best version of "The Leftovers," if it proves a complete creative success, will not be a show for everyone. Yet it believes fervently, messily, heartbreakingly, that even two percent of everyone means more than you can imagine.
Willa Paskin, Slate
"The Leftovers" is overwhelmingly, existentially serious, without succumbing to the relentlessly violent and masculine clichés of so much “serious” prestige TV. But while "The Leftovers" is in almost every particular better than the immensely popular "The Walking Dead," it also has none of that show’s cathartic, zombie-killing release. It is hard to imagine a show less designed for binge-watching.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
As a meditation on grief, "The Leftovers" can be oppressive. As a mystery, however, it's gripping. Flashbacks and dreams blur the line between fantasy and reality, leaving lots of juicy questions.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
"The Leftovers" is all bleakness all the time. Parts of it feel as though the show is emotionally blackmailing you into watching: What, don’t you care about these poor, miserable people? Well, go ahead and change the channel then, you monster. The first few episodes don’t showcase enough artistry to justify all the slogging and weeping, the bloodied faces and broken hearts. But I’d be lying if I said "The Leftovers" didn’t fascinate me. The totality of the suffering feels new. The scale of it overwhelms, so much so that nitpicking the dialogue, the performances, or the filmmaking seems petty.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Getting the balance right will be the key to its success. I felt less enamored with scattered hints that something bigger and possibly paranormal was in play, and more intrigued with normal human reactions to an epically complex event. If Lindelof and Perrotta can somehow strike a balance of the human, emotional fallout while also delving into an explanation of the oddities involved in "the sudden departure," then "The Leftovers" could be one of the more riveting new series.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
Ultimately, "The Leftovers" depicts a series of personal apocalypses, and it's an open question as to whether it will be able to spin these individual and community crises into a viable ongoing TV series. So far, it's not more than the sum of its mournful parts, but it's making a big effort, and it may get there eventually.
Brian Lowry, Variety
At least initially, the series is driven largely by its tone (Max Richter’s score is especially helpful in that regard), and it’s bound to make people think, which is by itself something of an accomplishment. Still, viewers will face a choice—probably toward the end of the first season—on whether that’s enough incentive to keep them from joining those 2%.