Monday, June 30, 2014

The Leftovers: 1.01 "Pilot"

"The pope, I get the pope. But Gary fuckin' Busey? How did he make the cut?!"

It boasts the same executive producers as Lost and Friday Night Lights. You must have known I was going to write about this puppy. (Spoilers ahead for the pilot episode.)

The Leftovers is based on a novel by Tom Perotta (who also wrote Little Children, a similarly unhappy book) about a world event where 2% of the population (140 million people) just suddenly disappears, leaving the other 98% behind. Bewildered, overwhelmed, and questioning everything they ever knew, those who are left behind can't mourn their loved ones because they don't know what the hell just happened to them. The Religion vs. Science debate heats up, and people become embroiled in arguments and fights over what really happened on October 14th. 

Of course, the most obvious response is that it was The Rapture, that God chose his most beloved people to rise up into Heaven, leaving the rest behind. This, of course, wouldn't explain why there are so many questionable people who disappeared, or babies and children who were left behind. But it doesn't stop people from suggesting that was it. 

And the ones who are left behind are obviously the point of this story. Recently my aunt was telling me how every year she would put a notice in the paper memorializing my grandmother on the day she died. After a few years of doing this, her husband gently said to her, "You know, your mom can't see you doing this." And she said, "It's not for her. It's for those of us left behind." Funerals are never for the ones who are deceased, nor are the grave sites and tombstones: they're for the rest of us, those who have to go on living without those people, giving us something solid and concrete to remember them by. 

And after whatever the hell it was that took those people on October 14, it left behind people who are confused and broken, and don't know how to go on. This isn't a universe like in Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant graphic novel series Y: The Last Man, where every man but one dies, with planes falling out of the skies, governments toppling, and armies becoming obsolete. Or like the one in Flashforward, where everyone sleeps for two minutes and once again planes fall out of the sky and cars crash and trains derail and many people die. Or the one in Revolution, where the electricity suddenly shuts down and planes fall out of the sky (Christ, I never realized how many apocalypses begin with planes crashing down) and the world goes dark and many people die. This is a relatively small percentage of the population, and there's no real answer as to why

But we're human beings: asking why is the key to our existence, and what sets us apart from the animals. Without that question, we don't seem to have any motivation to go forward. And this opening episode of the series is a perfect illustration of what the world would look like if random people just suddenly... disappeared. The main focus is the Garvey family, revealed to us beautifully one by one as actually being connected, right to the very last (and most shocking) one of all. This is a family where the mother disappeared, where the father became police chief after his own father — the former police chief — lost his mind. Where the son is working for some sort of therapist/mystic named Wayne who brings people peace, and "unburdens" them for serious wads of cash. Where the daughter is in such deep emotional pain she barely talks, is going through normal adolescent heartbreak, but must do so with the added burden of a mother who isn't there. Where the mother... didn't actually disappear, but is a member of a strange cult of smokers who dress in nothing but white clothes, and don't speak, but believe that smoking proclaims their faith, and that anyone who is talking about the Disappearance, theorizing about it, or continuing to breathe clean air is simply wasting their breath. (OK, their "platform" isn't exactly clear, but presumably will become so in the coming episodes.) We see how hard it is to just go on when you don't have any answers, when the entire world has changed around you, when religious nuts are running rampant, and when the Ninth Doctor turns out NOT to be a Gallifreyan time traveller but an American reverend who has abandoned his religion and spends his time trying to convince people this is NOT the Rapture, people, listen up! 

The episode opens beautifully, with a harried mom at a laundromat trying to do a million things at once as her baby screams and screams, but she's multitasking and giving instructions over the phone and getting her laundry done and absolutely nothing is going right, and then... poof, her baby is gone. We don't see him disappear (did he just pop out of existence? float up into the air? disappear slowly?) and that's far more effective than if the writers had chosen to give us one scenario. Instead we only see the aftermath: a crying child whose father has disappeared, a car crashing because the driver is presumably no longer driving, and a mother distraught that the child she was too busy to comfort is suddenly gone. The opening scene comes full circle when Kevin Garvey, getting drunk at the bar, runs into the woman from the laundromat, who is similarly drinking her own problems away. 

Garvey tries to get his wife Laurie to come home, but she's entrenched in the new group. Liv Tyler's character, Meg, can't smile even though she's planning a wedding, and we wonder who she lost. Was it a husband? A previous fiancé? We get one very quick, brief flashback to what Kevin Garvey was doing at the moment of the Disappearance, and it's clear he was having an affair of some kind. At the "Heroes Day" gathering, a woman named Norah Durst gets up to talk about how she lost both children and a husband. Not only is she alone, but she still believes they're out there somewhere, and she tries with some difficulty to refer to them in the present tense. But she also has to deal with the looks she gets every day: if it was the Rapture, they seem to be thinking, then why did the rest of your family go but not you? 

This seems to be haunting those who are left behind more than anything. It's a new world where, as the dog killer at the end says, things are no longer the same. "They are not our dogs, not anymore," he tells Chief Garvey, and he could just as easily be referring to everyone. They are not the same, they've been changed by this. Kevin has nightmares of killing a deer, and seems to see the deer everywhere he goes. A stag would typically represent peace, stability, love, and gentleness, and all those things are gone, ripped apart by the Disappearance that just took 140 million people away like a pack of wild dogs. 

This is a show written by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) and the influence of the two shows can be spotted throughout:
*Congressman Whitten, who goes to see Wayne to become unburdened, is Buddy Garrity
*the security guy who meets the truck is Peter Berg himself, who always makes a cameo in his shows
*Tom asks Whitten, "So you're from Texas, huh?" and Whitten says, "How did you know?" like a little in-joke to FNL fans.
*there are clearly Daddy Issues going on throughout the show, whether it's Kevin dealing with his own father or Tom dealing with Kevin.
*Tom is seen reading Albert Camus's The Stranger, which, if I were writing a book on this show, I'd know what one of the chapters was going to be
*the flashbacks are quick, but Lindelof specializes in showing how the present has been shaped by the past, and that is one of the cornerstones of this series
*the constant science vs. faith arguments
*the biblical Easter eggs (when Kevin is flipping the radio you hear someone proclaim "Corinthians 15!!" which is the chapter in the Bible in which Christ's resurrection is retold by Paul)

And of course, there are the trademark Lindelof questions here:
*what exactly is the cult in white supposed to represent, how did they form, and what do they hope to achieve? why cigarettes?!
*why does Tom have slash marks on his back?
*why did Laurie leave her family behind?
*what is up with Wayne? Why does he have a bunch of bikini-clad Asian women hanging around his pool? What does he do in the room to "unburden" people?
*what was happening in everyone's life before the Disappearance?
*what the hell happened on October 14th?

I wasn't sure what I thought of the show at the halfway point, but by the end I was really enjoying it. From the super-scary sculpture in the park to the fact that in a crisis, we tend to divide and argue rather than connect and heal, the tone of the pilot episode was almost pitch-perfect, introducing us to a dark world that looks like our own, but with even more grief and heartbreak. And the music, by one of my absolute favourite musicians Max Richter (the piano music playing throughout much of it is from his sublime record The Blue Notebooks, which I highly recommend and probably listen to three times a week), sets an atmosphere and tone much like Michael Giacchino did on Lost and Explosions in the Sky did on Friday Night Lights.

So, at least for the first episode, I'm hooked. Are you? 


Page48 said...

Don't forget the horror of Y2K, where planes fell out of the sky, electricity shut down, cars crashed, trains derailed, and many people died....if memory serves.

When I think Peter Berg, I think Snowman.

Nikki Stafford said...

LOL, I think Snowman, too!! :)

Beth said...

"hear someone proclaim "Corinthians 15!!" which is the chapter in the Bible where Christ is resurrected"

Slightly nitpicky, but Christ is resurrected in the gospels (pick any one of 4). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul recaps the story and explains why the resurrection matters.

Nikki Stafford said...

Thanks for that, Beth! That's definitely an important distinction. I've made the change. :)

Unknown said...

Okay, so this is yet another Lindelof vehicle where MYSTERIOUS THINGS HAPPEN! FOR NO APPARENT REASON! Seriously, this is getting into one trick pony territory at this point.

Anonymous said...

I tried to watch this last night but lost interest and turned it off after 20 mins. I thought they were trying far to hard to be "dark & edgy" and were just dark for darkness sake (as opposed to True Detective which was dark & awesome).

Nikki - seeing that you liked it so much and that HBO has deemed it Sunday-Night-Worthy. I'll probably give it another week.

Maybe it's just because I finished Season 2 of Orange is the New Black (incredible) and became the last person on earth to see Season 1 of Orphan Black last weekend (also incredible and she can freaking ACT) but Left Over just was lacking by comparison.

I think we've seen all this before. Maybe next week will be better.

-Tim Alan

Anonymous said...

I thought it was brilliant, and I don't think we've seen anything quite like it.

The tone of the show is wrenching, and yet cathartic, and I think that's going to be "point" of watching the show - a concern, it seems, to much of the audience so far.

And it's not going to be very attractive to many viewers because of that, but I already can't wait for the next episode. It won't stop rolling over in my mind.

Lindelof is one of the last humanists with real clout, at least one of the last that still has an incredibly sharp and honest mind about human nature. It's one of the reasons I love his work.

Fred said...

Another HBO series, which sadly I do not subscribe to. What is it with people disappearing/ reappearing from the dead, or being trapped under a dome? Now that we're done with Twilight and Vampire Diaries, is this what is going to replace it as viewing fare? Have to wait till it come out on DVD.

I wonder if they are not disappearing but awakening to the truth that reality is the Matrix? Or is this a collaboration between governments and aliens--bring in agents Scully and Muldar.

Nikki Stafford said...

As with all shows, I will watch this with some trepidation. I find HBO pilots have too much exposition, and are very rarely the best of the series (Sopranos was dull; Six Feet Under was a pilot I saw and then didn't watch episode 2 for another several months; The Wire was dull...) But after that first hurdle, they rarely disappoint.

I agree with the second Anonymous above (I wish you'd said your name!) who points out that Damon Lindelof is a humanist. Just as I never watched Lost as a show literally about people on a mysterious island, but an exploration of who we are, how our connections with others affect our lives, and how we come to terms with the things we did in our lives and "move on," I'm already watching this NOT as a show about people literally disappearing into thin air (the writers are not coming down solely on the side of "THIS IS THE RAPTURE" like Left Behind, but instead not really saying what it was) but an examination of what we do as humans when those connections with other people are broken, how we learn to go on when our loved ones die or leave us, and the confusion that we're often left with when that death or absence is sudden and deliberate. There are so many things that could be done with this show, and anyone willing to watch it on a level that isn't literal and concrete will probably enjoy it more.

Unlike the comment above that suggested Lindelof is a one-trick pony, I think exploring who we are as human beings and how we come to terms with the very real things that happen in life (does everything that happen to us have an easy explanation? or is it possible that in our everyday lives mysterious things happen for no apparent reason?) can never be one trick. Lindelof's humanist writing really explores so many facets of who we are. I might not like everything he does, but I certainly appreciate what he does. :)

Joan Crawford said...

Yes! So glad you're following this. Watched this the other night and it has absolutely got me hooked. And having Justin Theroux walk towards the camera (in full uniform!) with sad eyes doesn't turn away the viewers either. Lord! My husband actually began his impersonation of him after I made a few comments: "Oh, hello Joan... it's me, Officer Broken-Hearted... and I'm coming for you". He is literally the only person on earth who could stand to be married to me. I think this show has so much potential. In conclusion, please continue to post about it so I can freak out every week.

Anonymous said...

Name's Eric, and thanks for the reply. (ramble-mode) I've been waiting for Lindelof to come back to television. I'm championing him not just because he's so good technically - at dialogue, mood, narrative structure, etc. - but because he, and by extension his work, is so un-cynical.

You can still find "un-cynical" nowadays, but it's usually in the form of disposable guilty pleasures like "Once Upon a Time," or firmly planted in the comedic realm. Those are the only ways the masses will accept "pollyannish" ideas like hope and the agency of humankind to become better for the sake of themselves.

In the post-post-modern dramas of the golden age of television, cynicism rules the day, (admittedly because art imitates life.) (Spoiler) "True Detective." was deeply nihilistic, then turned on a dime at the end. The redemption didn't quite work on a story level, but it all went by so quickly, that everyone could easily return to the miserable pleasures that attracted them (and me) in the first place. (End Spoiler)

"Breaking Bad" was about an everyman who loses his soul over the course of the series, and he does not redeem himself. "Game of Thrones" revolves around the notion that human nature and evil blur together into the true reality churning underneath illusory honor and value systems. Only by the grace of the gods, or GRR Martin. And "The Walking Dead." My God, if ever there was a ever a contender for the title of "bleakest" show. There are intermittent scenes that try to suggest that the goodness of people still exists in the post apocalypse, but the inevitable return of the show to the slaughtering of both the living and the dead make those scenes ring hollow.

All of those works are brilliantly made, don't get me wrong. But it's the reason why Lindelof is indispensable. He can make that level of television without submitting to the popular notion that mankind will eventually eat itself alive. He does not believe we are beyond redemption.

And he'll never say it's an easy road, or that it's definitely a reachable goal. But he always treats his characters with that modicum of respect. On any other show, the Guilty Remnant would open up doors to exciting violence or the dark nature of religious con-artistry. But in the book, as in the pilot, they're just people who have witnessed a miracle and don't want to let humanity forget that fact.

The centerpiece of this painful catharsis is Laurie. She may be a woman who abandoned her family, but she did so because something too important happened to just go back to living with eyes closed, even if that means breaking your loved ones' hearts, and even if it means denying herself their love. But when Kevin pleads with her to come home, we can see the heart of this series laid out on its sleeve, and it works.

And the crescendo as the narrative moved on to the pain of their children, who are just as broken-hearted...god this show needs an audience.

Batcabbage said...

... Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant graphic novel series Y: The Last Man...

I love it when you talk like that, Nik. :)

Suzanne said...

I am definitely intrigued by the show and already looking forward to next week. Thanks for reviewing this Nikki! Your commentary on shows I like always brings the experience to a higher level. Also, it is a nice bonus that you don't feel the need to put down Lost as so many other reviewers seem to do when reviewing this show. I remain in the camp who thinks Lost was an amazing show and one of the best I have seen. I also liked the ending! I have faith that Lindelof has a lot more brilliance to share with us in this show.

Eric, I really enjoyed your comments above! I like some of the cynical shows you mentioned (True Detective and Breaking Bad, especially), but I agree that Lindelof brings a humanist perspective to his show with a sense of hope for redemption that I really enjoy. That is probably one of the reasons why shows like Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are my two favorites even though I like a lot of the other more cynical shows.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Suzanne, and I agree - Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows of all time, and the last show I obsessed about was True Detective.
With the latter it's going to be extremely interesting to see how the audience reacts to the sophomore season.

Unknown said...
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Ron Mater said...