In its first scene, “The Leftovers” demonstrates the power of its premise in the simplest of terms. We drop in on a mother in the middle of a day that anyone can relate to. She’s doing laundry and making phone calls as her infant son looks on from his carrier. Everything is completely normal until the baby disappears without explanation. One moment, he’s crying. The next, he’s not there. It’s undeniably potent stuff.
The October 14th departure of two percent of the world’s population is what “The Leftovers” is about, but not in the way that most other shows would tackle it, or how “Lost” fans expect co-creator Damon Lindelof to engage it.
The show is not about the disappearance, but a reaction to it. The mystery is not where these people went, but what’s happening to the people still walking around, doing laundry and making phone calls.
Something that “The Leftovers” does particularly well in its first hour is offer glimpses, woven into the fabric of a smaller story, of how the world at large has changed since the disappearance. Moments like a high school class not participating in the Pledge of Allegiance and then fervently kneeling on the ground for class prayer are thoughtfully done and hint at some of the event’s lingering effects three years on, which is essentially the show’s primary objective and biggest challenge.
“The Leftovers” examines how the world has changed by zooming in on five characters in the same New Jersey town, but Justin Theoux’s police chief Kevin Garvey is the closest the show comes to an actual main character. He’s the first person the audience meets after the gut punch of an opening, and he gets the pilot’s most interesting storyline.
When we meet Garvey, it’s in the show’s first moment of apparent peace after 150 million people disappeared off of the Earth for no reason, but we’re quickly clued into how fundamentally screwed up things are when a stranger appears and shoots a neighborhood dog.
Over the course of the episode, we see what Garvey’s brave new world is like, and we learn that even the people who weren’t as directly affected by the departures as the mother in the opening are having a hard time keeping it together.
The members of Garvey’s immediate family each engage the post-departure world in a unique way. His son has moved across the country to work for a spiritual leader who sells cleansing hugs to senators. Garvey has a daughter who wanders through her hometown, as lost as everyone else but in a much more average way, which includes sex and drug-filled parties.
The episode’s major reveal comes when we learn that Garvey’s wife and the mother of his two children, who was previously referenced as having “left,” is actually a part of a mute commune, the Guilty Remnant, whose intentions, like those of the hugging spiritual, are still not entirely clear.
Covering this much ground with one estranged family demonstrates what Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel that the show is based upon, are attempting to do. They are explaining the worldwide phenomenon with an intense focus. Learning how the broken pieces of their lives will rearrange themselves once the world has regained some balance is what makes the show so watchable, even when some of its elements — like Peter Berg’s direction and the dialogue — aren’t doing the premise any favors.
“The Leftovers” is a show to watch, not because it’s technically the most impressive hour on television, but because it’s covering new ground for the mediums golden age and because at its core is an idea so fascinating that I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen next.