REVIEW: HBO’s The Leftovers, a grim take on the limits of grief and faith

July 2

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is the feel-good series of the summer, if your summer revolves around root canals and recreational waterboarding.

Indeed, it’s pretty grim stuff — but quite engrossing and worth your time, thanks to intense performances by Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston, and the way creators Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, and Damon Lindelof, best known for screwing up the end of “Lost,” unflinchingly tackle the nature of grief and the limits of faith.

Can you call it an apocalypse if you can still get a decent bagel afterwards? It’s three years after what has been termed the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population — Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight, gay, white, black, brown, and Gary Busey — suddenly disappeared.

Of the “leftovers,” some are trying to return to normal, some have turned their backs on religion, and others have turned to cults to assign some sort of meaning to the Sudden Departure — because what may be scariest of all is that there was no meaning.

The drama plays out in microcosm in the small town of Mapleton, N.Y. Theroux plays police chief Kevin Garvey, whose wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has gone off to live with the Guilty Remnant, a creepy post-Departure cult whose cigarette-smoking members silently stalk other townspeople who seem ready to move on — a tactic seldom appreciated by the stalkees.

The tension between the Guilty Remnant, led by the volcanically seething Patti (Ann Dowd, so memorably eerie in her brief appearance in “True Detective”) and the rest of the town comes to a bloody head after a commemorative parade on the first-ever “Heroes Day.” (When Garvey questions the name, the mayor snaps, “Nobody’s going to come to a parade for ‘We Don’t Know What the (bleep) Happened Day.’’’)

The clash between the cult and the town seems to be the central plot, although the show dolefully meanders among other characters, including Garvey’s 16-year-old daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), a former A student slipping into nihilism, and his older son Tom (Chris Zylka), shepherding the (too)-young lover of another questionable cult leader named Holy Wayne across the country, plus a few other lost souls.

The strongest episode so far is the third, which focuses on a minister played by the dynamite Eccleston (”Doctor Who,” ‘’Thor: The Dark World”). He’s tending to a shrinking flock — shrinking in no small part because the Rev. Matt Jamison’s sideline is obsessively digging up dirt on the departed to prove that they weren’t reaped by God for their goodness. (Again, a tactic seldom appreciated by the rest of the town.) It’s the most narratively focused, and I hope there’s more of that going forward.

The writing is spare (the Guilty Remnant have taken a vow of silence, after all) and effective, but the imagery is rather heavy-handed — wild dogs, presumably the former pets of the Departed, viciously attack a noble stag before being put down by a shotgun-toting pragmatist who tells a shocked Garvey, “They aren’t our dogs anymore.”

Perrotta wrote a couple of the episodes and was part of the writers’ room, and for those of you who (like me) read the book, it’s interesting to see how the show fleshes out certain characters, namely the Rev. Jamison, and turns Holy Wayne from almost a comic figure in the novel to someone of real menace onscreen.

Another major difference: While there is a turning point of sorts at the end of the book, there is never any explanation of the Sudden Departure. However, Lindelof, even mindful of the fallout from the Smoke Monster et. al., has promised one for the series. But if the point of the show is to plumb our reactions to the unknowable, in this case, aren’t we better off not knowing?

Grade: B+

(Vicki Hyman writes for The Star-Ledger.)

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