A better name for Damon Lindelof’s new series would be Loss. Like his previous show, The Leftovers (which premieres this Sunday night on HBO at 10 p.m. ET) begins with an unexplainable, potentially supernatural incident: In the opening minutes of the pilot, 2 percent of the world’s population, some 140 million souls, instantly vanish. There is no bright light, no seven trumpets. There is only absence and its aftereffects.
Just like that, Shaq is gone. So is Gary Busey, Anthony Bourdain, your irritable neighbor, and a distressing number of newborns. Only instead of following these mismatched victims on a mysterious journey of unlikely bonding and unlikelier polar bears, The Leftovers hangs back with those left behind and settles in for the long mourning after. For the citizens of fictional Mapleton, New York, there will be no spiritual healing, no sharing of fish biscuits. For them, there will only be crushing disappointment and the kind of sadness that sinks into you like a heavy stone. They are promised no relief and, most crucially, they are given no answers.
Answers, of course, are a sore spot for Lindelof. Along with copilot Carlton Cuse — now busy running A&E’s Bates Motel and FX’s upcoming The Strain — Lindelof was responsible for turning Lost into a global phenomenon when it launched a decade ago. So much of what we take for granted on television now can be traced directly back to that show: the intricate serialization, the crosscutting between time periods, the grudging acceptance of genre and subtitles. But even more than any of that, we have Lost to blame for the frenzied way we talk about, obsess over, and consume television. It was the complicated doings on and off that spooky island that transformed recapping from a fringey message-board activity into an essential part of the mainstream viewing experience.1 Thanks to the dutiful, completist eyes of early adopters like Alan Sepinwall and the mad-genius ravings of Jeff Jensen, Lost became more than a weekly appointment; it was the sort of head-spinning entertainment that consumed entire weeks. At its peak, Lost felt less like a TV show and more like a glorious, collective fever dream. It was a joy to be online in those days, connecting dots that we weren’t even sure were real, chasing smoke because we were convinced it would lead to real fire.
Rather than temper fan excitement, Lindelof and Cuse doused it with gasoline. That was them, Easter egg-ing us on, dropping hints in podcasts, and yukking it up with talk-show hosts. This public spectacle did much for the visibility of writers in Hollywood. (Not to mention their bargaining power: now, every time a showrunner does a postseason chat, a lit agent gets his wings.) But it also came with an ugly flip side. No matter how much Lindelof and Cuse gave to their fans, the ledger was never quite balanced. Some always felt they were owed more. When Lost ended in 2010 with a soft, New Age–y squish instead of the hard, point-by-PowerPoint explanation a large part of the audience expected, things got ugly.2 Six years of good times and goodwill were wiped away with one soggy finale. Until the bitter end, Lindelof and Cuse thought they were merely following their muse. The aggrieved fan base was furious to discover it’d been following two guys who had never thought to buy a map.
My take on the matter has remained the same since 2010: I hated the ending with the passion of a thousand, fiery Sawyer/Juliet ’shippers, but I’ll never stop defending Lindelof and Cuse’s right to have made it. That the multibillion-dollar Walt Disney Company (which, it should be noted, also owns Grantland) allowed two schmoes whose previous shared credit was on the immortal Nash Bridges to land this very profitable ship in the manner they saw fit felt like a minor miracle. When given a choice, I’ll always prefer an extremely personal fuck-up to the wan, placating pablum of groupthink. Yes, they probably should have kept lower profiles, but the truth is that Lindelof and Cuse never really owed us answers. What they owed us was the best possible version of the best possible story they could imagine. That it turned out not to be particularly good was their bad. That we refused to accept it is ours.
It’s this culture of owing that is Lost’s most enduring legacy and also its most destructive one.3 The need to plan everything years in advance, to carefully stitch together every loose end and pickle each red herring has turned a generation of screenwriters into anxious engineers and a generation of viewers into nit-picking scolds. Thanks to the 24/7 critical feedback loop to which I owe my livelihood, a cigar is almost never allowed to be just a cigar — so you can only imagine the pressures placed upon a four-toed statue. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying television ought to be improvisatory — there are too many choices and not enough time to indulge that.4 But mystery is essential to art. A creator needs to be confident, comfortable, and willing to take that first scary step into the subconscious. And even though we’ve been burned in the past, we, the audience, need to be willing to follow suit.
Damon Lindelof has been burned too. Or at least that’s the impression one gets from the last four years of watching him squirm and self-flagellate himself over the Lost finale in a way that initially felt chummy and gradually just felt sad. Since leaving Lost, Lindelof has licked his wounds by moving as far away from personal projects as possible, working instead on well-paying, geek-by-numbers projects like Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Tomorrowland, a Disney theme park–inspired film he cowrote with his former disciple Jensen. Finally, last year, in a move that felt equal parts healthy and promotional, Lindelof quit Twitter — where his bio had read “I’m one of the idiots behind Lost” — on October 14, the date author Tom Perrotta picked as “Sudden Departure Day” for his 2011 novel, The Leftovers. With a new series and, going by this excellent recent New York Times Magazine profile, a diminished sense of self-loathing, Lindelof seemed eager to move on. But a man who made his name with time travel can’t escape the past nearly so easily.
First, the good news: The Leftovers is in no way an apology for Lost. The series — cocreated with Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the show was very liberally adapted — has an intense, often punishing melancholy all its own. In Sunday’s pilot, we see the “departure” happen in real time from the perspective of a harried mother: One moment her infant son is crying in the backseat. The next, he’s gone forever. (Whether this event is actually the biblical Rapture or not is a source of much debate within the world of the show. On the one hand, people disappeared. On the other, some of them were atheists, criminals, and assholes.) There’s a horror to this sequence that sneaks inside of you like a virus; the implausibility is leavened by director Peter Berg, who films the chaos with the languor of Uatu. In an instant the world has changed. But it’s still very much our world.
The story then jumps ahead three years. The all too predictable American obsession with closure has taken hold — Mapleton is celebrating “Heroes Day” with a parade and the unveiling of a tawdry statue — but not even the passage of time can suture this wound. Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) didn’t lose anyone on October 14, but his life has been a slow mudslide ever since. His son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has dropped out of college and fallen under the spell of a charismatic Englishman who claims he can heal people’s sorrow through hugs. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has left home to join the Guilty Remnant, a creepy, fast-metastasizing cult led by the brilliant Ann Dowd (Masters of Sex) that demands a vow of silence, an all-white wardrobe, and a two-pack-a-day habit. (The logic behind the cigarettes is that, after what happened three years ago, they’re all as good as dead anyway.) Kevin’s daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), is slowly drowning in a sea of unexamined sorrow and teenage kicks. (Apparently, kids these days5 have moved on from cheap beers and seven minutes in heaven to Vicodins and autoerotic asphyxiation.)
It’s a lucky break for us that Kevin is played by the likable Theroux; you might remember him from David Lynch movies or the IRL surreality of being Mr. Jennifer Aniston. Between his sorrow-drinking and his wall-punching, he’s less Jack Shephard — who, let’s be honest, wasn’t exactly Mr. Cheerful — and more the stick used to beat recalcitrant sheep. And Kevin is among Mapleton’s more well-adjusted citizens. On the wobblier end of the spectrum are Liv Tyler as a miserable bride-to-be, Carrie Coon as a woman who lost her entire family, and Michael Gaston as a mysterious prepper who drives around town shooting dogs with a high-caliber rifle. (There’s menace outside the town, too, in the form of multiple men in black. They’re not smoke monsters, but rather trigger-happy agents of the newly amended Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Cults.) There’s not a trace of soulmate/step into the light pop psychology here. With a palpable, bristling fury buried underneath a Kevlar layer of denial, it’s a wonder Elisabeth Kübler-Ross isn’t listed in the credits.
There are moments in the first few episodes of The Leftovers — when the umpteenth character unleashes a primal scream of misery; when a James Blake song mopes over a citywide fistfight — when it feels as if Lindelof’s desire to atone for his sins has overtaken his desire to entertain. Forget answers; with its relentless misery, The Leftovers is barely willing to give us a break. Even the flashbacks here are pissed off. Instead of the gauzy whooshing sound made famous by Lost, we get a jarring jump cut and a split-second glimpse of awfulness before being dumped unhappily back into the chilly present.
The Leftovers’ willingness to consider and illustrate unglamorous emotions like grief and despair is admirable6 — in this, it reminds me a bit of SundanceTV’s excellent Rectify — but rarely pleasant. At times I found myself desperate for a single ray of sunshine. Surely there’s at least one Mapletonian grateful for the events of October 14. Perhaps a decent debtor who came into millions when the father he never knew blinked out of existence? Or a bruised woman stuck in an abusive marriage who one day finds her husband a thing of the past? I’m not the sort to wish ill on anyone but, as a Philly sports fan, would I be unhappy if much of the Dallas Cowboys defense suddenly ceased to exist?
But The Leftovers isn’t much interested in my wants or needs; Lindelof has seen to that. There’s most assuredly not something here for everyone; it simply isn’t that kind of show. What it is, I came to realize after sitting and squirming through four grim hours, is rather unique. Though he’s still a little too fond of dream sequences and wise, watchful animals, Lindelof has successfully cast aside the whiz-bang nerd totems of his previous work and managed to tap into something deeper and more human — which is precisely what makes The Leftovers so unnerving. It’s hard to imagine 140 million people actually up and disappearing from our lives. But an important one or two? Sure. That’s not fantasy, it’s inevitable. Lost was all about second chances. Here, in his own play for forgiveness, Lindelof has given us a mirror shard that cuts like a razor.
The outstanding third episode, “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” tracks the downfall, spiritual and otherwise, of the town pastor, played with flickering defiance by the great British actor Christopher Eccleston, while the fifth (HBO did not make the fourth available to critics) concerns the ripples caused by a heinous hate crime. Both made me deeply uncomfortable, even nauseated in spots. They tugged at a part of me that I’d rather remain untouched, poked holes in the thin slip of emotional insulation necessary to wake up every day hoping for the best instead of curling up in a ball and imagining the worst.
I’m not quite sure how Damon Lindelof managed it. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to find out. And that alone should make him very, very happy.