Season One: Part 1
(SPOILERS for Episodes 1-5) I’m a sucker for punishment, I guess. I can’t resist the Lindelof Lure, that now renowned storytelling style in which a screenwriter (first name Damon) entices viewers to watch his TV shows (or movies) by dropping in choice mysteries, and themes and ideas of a phenomenally and spiritually nebulous order. The weekly fix is addictive, while the promise of an ultimate hit, the pay-off to it all, never arrives. I should have learnt after Lost, of course. All those promises of a planned-out story came to nothing, unless the plan was just straight up bollocks; the naysayers were right all along. I wont blame him for Prometheus, although many do; that’s Ridley Scott not knowing his plot demands from a horse’s arse. The Leftovers derives from a novel by Tom Perrotta so it’s immediately ripe for disparaging comparisons from those who read it and rated it. And blow me, if I haven’t fallen for the Lindelof Lure again. Five episodes in and he’s got me, hook, line and sinker. And naturally he’s utilising all the same devices as ever he does, just now with a dollop of HBO graphicness sprinkled on top. I’m a hopeless case.
Conceptually, this is right up Lindelof’s street. I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t like what he does (and I’m afraid I do, right up to the moment he pulls a fast one; that’s the problem) then you’re not doing yourself any favours by tuning in. This is him to a tee. There’s a Rapture-ish event, and no one knows how or why. I understand that, in the novel, you don’t get to know how or why either (so like The Walking Dead minus the zombies?) The problem is, and one Lindelof will repeatedly face given his penchant for posing the big questions that no one has the big answers to, that if you condense mystery storytelling into a serial and you haven’t come up with a means to resolve it, you’re cheating the audience. If the unanswered questions are the whole point, that’s maybe something, but you owe it to your audience not to pretend it’s otherwise. Lost claimed there were answers but, when it came down to it, it would have been better off not even going there. Frustration over there being possible answers (and most of the conjecture by fans was much more intriguing than what we got) is in some ways less damaging than underwhelming revelations. At least with the former one can nurse a favoured possibility and argue for it (more the David Lynch approach). With The Leftovers, there is I suppose the forearmed approach; if one goes in expecting no solutions then at least expectations are set low. It can be enjoyed for what it is, for better or worse. I’m doubtful he will win any new fans by continuing with his favoured course, though.
A few series at the moment seem to be tempting disparaging reviews on account of their titles (see Penny Dreadful, which kind of is). This one's big event should really have taken place on December 26th, rather than October 18th. It conjures images of unwanted remnants of turkey and slightly distressed stuffing. Set three years after the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the World’s population vanished instantaneously, Lindelof and Perrotta have a winning if well-worn premise. What would such an event do to the 98% left behind? How would it change belief and lifestyle if something as monumentally baffling as this were to occur? Particularly when, as Christopher Ecclestons (former) Reverend Matt Jamison is keen to point out to bruising effect from those he pesters with the harsh truths, many of those “taken” were not such nice people really. If it was an act of God, it was a particularly random one. So belief systems crumble, and others rise in their place. And the effect on most, those who have lost or know someone who has, or those who just want to keep on going regardless, is more subtle. People keep on with the routine, but there’s no avoiding that something has fundamentally changed.
Those such as The Guilty Remnant, a white-clothed chain-smoking doom merchant cult who claim (silently; they make much use of pen and paper, to the glee of stationers everywhere) favour forsaking all emoptional attachments and embracing the meaninglessness of it all; if there are pockets of these groups in every community, then regaining a semblance of normality will prove understandably difficult. Their motivation is the most intriguing of those we see, since beyond the basic cult apparatus of indoctrination of followers through trials and punishments and love and abuse, their ultimate goals remain opaque. By the fifth episode, where it’s fairly evident they have stoned one of their own to death (at least, if it proves otherwise it will go against all the visual cues; the victim taking a meeting with the leader before the particular horrible event, and one of the cultees, who apparently only discovers the scene later, having a flashback to it), we’re not buying that Patti (Ann Dowd, superlative as always, and someone with steel in her eyes when called upon) has any truly high-minded goals; all are a means to whatever end her ego has dictated is the true path. On that level it looks like fairly standard sect business, but we know from Lostthat Lindelof had a tendency to pull the rug from under expectations and operate reversals of sympathy and reveals that foster a whole different perspective. I’d be surprised if that isn’t coming here at some point.
Besides Patti, we meet Laurie (Amy Brennerman, who I probably recognise best from Heatrather than her extensive TV work), the ex of the police chief, who upped and left her family not for reasons of loss but just… because. As with Lost, Lindelof indulges his penchant for one person-devoted instalments, and we’re yet to be privy to fuller insights into the tug between the local family she has left behind and the new austere/fruitcake life she has chosen. The fifth episode is crucial, though, for both her and new recruit Megan (Liv Tyler). Both show new resolve for their cause. While the latter “takes vows”, Laurie has one of the most stunning moments of the series so far as she aurally slaps Matt in the face by blowing her whistle to disrupt his impromptu remembrance service for the stonee.
The third episode gives Eccleston, the man who wishes he hadn’t been Who, pretty much a one-hander (so to speak). We witness his frankly antic devotion to getting others to acknowledge the negatives of those who went away; he sees it as his duty to separate the innocent from the guilty. As noted this is the clearest evidence yet of Lindelof Lost DNA poking through, with single character-centric, how-did-he-come-to-this flashbacks and strange portents signalling the way to progress for someone who is lost (shades of John Locke). His faith is humorously undercut, however; thinking his prayer that morning must have roused a coma case, he is told, “Well, she woke up last night”. And, in the end, just as he thinks God is showing him what to do, the Remnant snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (one of his numbers at the roulette table is, of course, 23). Eccleston’s American accent is as ropey as ever (and I say that as someone who is generally tone deaf enough not to be generally bothered by fellow Shallow Graver Ewan McGregor’s attempts) but he’s otherwise very good, a mixture of the earnest, crazed and deluded; it’s the type of slightly dangerous role he can pull off with aplomb.
Less successful, at least so far, is the other cult plotline, this one more Waco-style, featuring Patterson Joseph, the man who would have been Who but wasn’t, as Holy Wayne. He’s a bald, grinning nutter. And the most unlikely guru ever, just by dint of being played by Patterson Joseph. It’s the sort of role Joseph should give a wide berth, as he has a tendency to ham and this only indulges that bent. Wayne can apparently instil profound meaning and insight on anyone who spends a mere few minutes in his company, but has a penchant for teenage Asian girls (shades of Sai Baba-type scandals?) Right now Wayne’s on the periphery, with the main attention on Laurie’s son Tom (Chris Zylka) and his protection of one of Wayne’s chosen Christine (Annie Q). That said, the storming of the “compound” that opens the second episode is suitably dramatic, and a world in which this sort of thing is nothing to get worked up about is telling; so too in the fifth episode, when police chief Kevin (Justin Theroux) is told by a blasé FBI guy that he can put in a call and have the Guilty Remnant disappeared just like that if Kevin gives the word.
The fourth instalment, with its (purposefully, but it’s still a damp squib) uninspiring Christmas setting and focus on various teenage travails, is probably the weakest so far. Part of that is down to the Tom plot, which tries to be full of weirdness but ends up rather tepid. Part of it is the focus on Laurie’s other offspring, daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley). Both Qualley and Emily Meade as Jill’s friend Amy offer strong performances, but this is standard issue teen angst with a not yet engaging twist. In general, Lindelof is failing big time in sustaining interest in the show’s younger element (notably, there was very little of this is in Lost, and we all know what happened to Waaaaaaaaalt… well, no we don’t actually, not very clearly).
Most of the high strangeness surrounds the main character, Police Chief Kevin Garvey. Even though he refuses to acknowledge the swirling hyper real fog. He’s like Jack off Lostlike that. The difference being that Justin Theroux is a much more engaging performer than Matthew Fox. I’ve got to admit; Theroux’s really impressed me here as I thought he stunk in the last thing I saw him in (Wanderlust; maybe it was just the movie). Of late I’m familiar with his name more through script work (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2, although I won’t hold the latter against him) than the distant past of Mulholland Dr. This is a “straight” relatively macho role; the comedy comes from deadpan responses rather than mining for yuks. This is the straightforward, meat-and-potatoes guy beset by events beyond his ken and, perhaps because Theroux is naturally off-kilter, the part brings him down to earth in a good way.
Like Jack in Lost, Kevin just cant stop encountering oddness. He’s also a pisshead; the only way he knows to deal with the wife who has left him (he was unfaithful at an earlier point in their marriage), the son who has upped and fled, and the father (Scott Glenn; I want to see more of him!) who has lost his marbles. Or has he? Why do waffles go missing in the waffle maker, then resurface? Why do Kevin’s shirts disappear from the rack and end up at the dry cleaners (do they? Did the guy just take any shirts down?) Why are feral dogs on the loose, and why is it down to Michael Gaston’s Dean to shoot them down like, er, dogs? Why are his men such idiots (“Jesus, I never should have told you to watch The fucking Wire”)? Why does he keep having semi-erotic dreams about Amy (to be fair, she is very forward)? And what will happen between him and Matt’s sister Nora (Carrie Coon; still only in a bit part so far, but making a strong impression)?
Gaston’s character is particularly intriguing, rough and ready with apparent tells-it-like-he-sees-it insight (“How do you know they didn’t do this to themselves?” he asks the baffled Chief regarding the stoning; it’s particularly obvious when Matt follows it up with “Killing these people is pointless. They don’t care because they’re already dead”). His best moment comes when asking for his gun back, as a witness to the scene of the stoning; “It doesn’t shoot rocks”.
I hope The Leftoversisn’t a one-season fizzle. The last time HBO did something of this nature was the considerably wackier but equally unforthcoming John from Cincinnati, and look how long that lasted (but would HBO make that mistake now?) The Leftoversisn’t the second coming of TV shows but it exerts a strong hold; just as long as the Lindelof Lure doesn’t upset you. It perhaps needs to know when to lighten up, as the sombre self-seriousness needs more balance at times. Such as being told that Gary Busey was one of those taken. That’s just classy.