“The Leftovers,” HBO’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel about the people left behind when two percent of the world’s population disappears on an otherwise ordinary Oct. 14, is easy to describe as bleak, overpowering and grief-stricken.


Justin Theroux in a scene from “The Leftovers.” (Paul Schiraldi/HBO via Associated Press)

But while those adjectives would not necessarily set “The Leftovers” apart from the grim menu that cable television so often serves up,  this drama, which premiered last night, struck me as original in another way. Unlike many other shows, which hold out ambiguity and flexibility as the highest marks of ethical sophistication, “The Leftovers,” which comes to us from “Lost” veteran Damon Lindelof, is a profoundly moral show, one in which doing right is valuable, but where the path to goodness is full of great pain and confusion.

The very nature of the catastrophe in “The Leftovers” is proportioned very differently from the shakeups in the show’s cable-television peers. Rather than a zombie apocalypse or a savage continental war, the vanishing is utterly inexplicable. The means by which the two percent disappeared and the reason those people were taken while others were left behind — “The pope, I get. But Gary f—ing Busey?” a bartender muses — remain a profound mystery.

In a lesser show, such stakes might not register for an audience accustomed to series that wrench characters away from the implications of events, distracting them and us with the imperative to survive. But in “The Leftovers,” there is nothing to distract the survivors, or us, from the absence of those 140 million gone. There are no battles to fight, palace intrigues to circumvent or serial killers to grapple with. There is only life, but with holes in it, hours once spent with other people that now need to be filled.

“The Leftovers” also distinguishes itself in examining the solutions its characters find for that emptiness.

In the absence of an end goal, the show does not fetishize manipulation or amorality. The one character who might be described that way, Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a cult leader who claims to be able to release people’s pain with hugs, is hardly the charismatic anti-hero he might have been on another program. He does not even really feel impressive. Instead, Wayne’s eyes always seem open a little too wide. His taste for Asian teenage girls is described with disgust by law enforcement and viewed with some suspicion by Tom Garvey (Chris Zylka), one of Wayne’s followers. When he embraces one of the girls, his eyes are on Tom, hungrier for the boy’s reaction than the young woman’s touch.

Outside Wayne’s compound, the characters stumble about, blinded by their pain. Tom’s sister Jill (Margaret Qualley) has essentially moved her sour, sexy classmate Aimee (Emily Meade) into her family’s home to take up the space formerly occupied by her mother, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnant. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), Jill and Tom’s father, is distracted by his job as the town sheriff, recurrent dreams about his own father’s breakdown and a newcomer to town who has been shooting stray dogs.

Jill’s drift into effective parentlessness has the weight that in another show might be observed by a significant character’s death, except that it isn’t a shock and “The Leftovers” does not move on from it.

When she goes to a party at a friend’s house in the pilot, the debauchery has a genuine moral and physical menace to it. The kids play a spin-the-bottle-style game with an iPhone, but with sex acts instead of kisses. When the spinner pairs up Aimee and Jill’s crush for sex, Jill encourages Aimee to go ahead with it: the boy moves toward her with an unmistakably predatory intent. Jill’s turn assigns her to choke one of her classmates while he masturbates. The camera focuses on her tearful face while they are in bed together. For once, HBO is not trying to get away with saying something serious about sex while also showing off an actress’ body.

All the characters have in “The Leftovers” are little things. A preacher, Matt Jamison, tries to reassure himself that he was not left out of the Rapture by disparaging the dead. Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who lost her whole family in the disappearance, humbles herself, wishing that she could relive a day when she and her husband and children were gravely ill, not even daring to hope that she could have their best day back. In a subsequent episode, Kevin finds himself worked up over a bagel that goes missing after he puts it into the toaster.

And when, on the anniversary of the disappearance, members of the Guilty Remnant disrupt a commemoration, holding up signs that spell out “Stop Wasting Your Breath,” the response is cruelly human-scale. A man puts down his sign and walks toward the cult members. A younger woman pushes an older woman holding up one of the signs. Another woman hits a cult member with a bottle. These people have no power beyond that supplied by their rage and grief, and no real weapons, but the damage they do to their neighbors cuts deeper than more grandiose displays of violence.

“We are the living reminders,” reads a Guilty Remnant slogan painted above the sink in one of the cult’s houses. “The Leftovers” stands as testimony to how valuable it can be to focus on everyday things and everyday people.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.