HBO’s latest Quality Entertainment, “The Leftovers,” arrives Sunday. Developed by Damon Lindelof (“Lost”) and Tom Perrotta from Perrotta’s 2011 novel, it is set in a New York small town three years after the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world’s population.
Though it is expertly made, with evident commitment and passion and art behind and before the camera, I also found it on the whole frustrating and unsatisfying.
Wisely pictured in a quick, single, local scene, the central event goes by different names. Some call it the Rapture, the biblically predicted instant wherein God lifts the faithful to Heaven, leaving the Earthly unselected to tough out the balance of the Book of Revelations. Others refer to it, in a more secular but still poetic mood, as the Departure; and still others, in the current fashion for naming big bad things by the date they happen, Oct. 14.
As portrayed here, there is no scriptural rhyme or reason to the event. Many nonbelievers are among the missing, virtually all Christians among the remaining. And the apocalypse, apparently, has come and gone. (Indeed, with 98% of humanity still around, “The Leftovers” hardly seems the right title.)
There is a supernatural undertone to the series, in that a miraculous occurrence has left a cast of characters stranded and confused. But where “Lost” scrambled for an explanation, to assign some causes and effects to its kooky island, “The Leftovers” keeps the why and the wherefore dark.
Its characters’ shared dilemma is, of course, merely a sharpened version of the one we all face daily, and around which have been constructed great edifices of religion and philosophy. The whole show is a concretized metaphor for loss; its business is the ways that people accommodate or fail to accommodate it.
Most of the characters are failing. In the more or less central role of Kevin Garvey (the mayor in the book, the police chief here), Justin Theroux is a gathering storm. (In the original, not so much.) He wrestles profanely with the toaster oven at work and the security system at home. He forgets to shave. He scowls and grumbles and drinks too much.
Granted, he is not a happy man. Though his family was left intact by the Whatever, his wife, Laura (Amy Brenneman), has joined a white-wearing cult called the Guilty Remnant, who await the rest of the end of the world in silence, smoking cigarettes because, after all, what the hell.
His son (Chris Zylka) is working for another cult out West; and his daughter (Margaret Qualley) has grown surly. She and her friends are as lost as any group of teens in a ‘70s or ‘80s suburban-hell film, but now there’s also an app for that.
Perrotta’s book is straightforward and dry and full of quotidian detail; the speed with which normalcy returns in the wake of uncanny tragedy is one of its themes. The TV series, by contrast, pumps up the volume, interpolating episodes of violence, crazy dreams, a dark stranger, federal shenanigans and frequent adjectival and adverbial use of the present-participle of the F-word. Most every scene portrays a state of crisis, tension or strangeness; normalcy goes out the window, and with it all but the bitterest, blackest humor.
It peeks back in occasionally, to be sure, with a reference to “The Wire” or, a list of celebrities who evaporated in the event (Shaq, the pope, Bonnie Raitt, Gary Busey), or a country-music radio dedication to a listener’s departed wife (“We don’t know where you are, we sure do hope there’s pickles up there”).
The viewer — this viewer — seizes on these crumbs with a kind of gratitude. Possibly this is the desired effect, but it feels that only half a story, the grim part, is being told.
The performances, including “Ninth Doctor” Christopher Eccleston as a minister dedicated to proving that this was not the Rapture, are notable throughout. I am moved particularly to mention the understated Ann Dowd, as matter-of-fact head of the local Guilty Remnant chapter, and Carrie Coon as a woman who lost her whole family in the thingy.
Liv Tyler, as a new member of the order and whose first adventure in television this is, does good work with a silent Brenneman, her mentor. A scene in the snow, in which Brenneman has Tyler chop wood to no stated purpose, has an aura of mystery that more aggressively mysterious passages don’t quite achieve. It’s a bit of a Zen thing, I suppose.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)