The series begins on the day of The Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population disappears from the planet. Was it The Rapture as described in some religions? “The Leftovers” doesn’t seem inclined to answer that key question anytime soon.
Quickly the show flashes forward to the three-year anniversary of this mysterious event and focuses on the small New York town of Mapleton where chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux, “Six Feet Under”) is trying to hold things together.
His teen daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), rebels and misses her mom, Laurie (Amy Brenneman, “Judging Amy”), who has joined the Guilty Remnant, a cult of mute, white-clad, chain-smokers who are intent on finding new members by standing outside their target’s home.
Garvey’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka, “The Secret Circle”), lives on a compound somewhere in the American Southwest where he’s a henchman to a self-proclaimed prophet. Tom won’t take his dad’s phone calls.
Back in Mapleton, Mayor Lucy Warburton (Amanda Warren, “The Adjustment Bureau”) butts heads with Garvey over plans to commemorate The Sudden Departure, where Nora (Carrie Coon), who lost her entire family, will speak.
The first episode name-checks some of bold-face names who disappeared through a TV news report, leading to one of the show’s few, lighter moments.
“I get the Pope,” says a bartender watching the anniversary coverage. “But Gary [bleeping] Busey?”
Episode two better clarifies some of the relationships but also injects more questions: Is Garvey imagining a man in a pickup truck who shoots dogs that went primal after The Sudden Departure?
In a recent interview in the New York Times Magazine, Mr. Lindelof expressed his appreciation of mystery and seemed to suggest answers aren’t always necessary, although “The Leftovers” does provide some small explanations in the four episodes HBO made available for review from the show’s 10-episode first season.
“The Leftovers” is at its best in its third episode, which focuses entirely on the Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston, “Doctor Who”), who launches a campaign of shame that suggest many of those who disappeared during the rapture were sinners not saints.
In episode three he gets detoured by attempts to save his church, which is up for foreclosure. It’s an hour that homes in on Jamison and his plight but it also ties together a few threads, including the revelation that Nora is his sister.
But is this tight-focus episode an anomaly or will it become a routine format change for “The Leftovers”? From these early episodes, which do improve as they go along, it’s still unclear what the series will be on a weekly basis and in that recent New York Times interview, even Mr. Lindelof seemed unsure. The character deep-dive in episode three was more satisfying than the soap opera-style storytelling in the first two episodes. But in episodes four and five, “The Leftovers” is back to jumping from one character’s story to another’s, although with fewer stops along the way.
Episode five, in particular, though more multi-character in nature, manages to better focus on one element of the story – a hate crime – that pulls in multiple characters without feeling like the show is hopscotching all over the place. It’s a disturbing but moving episode that moves forward several character stories in a believable way.
While there may still be doubts about the sustainability of “The Leftovers,” it clearly seems to be moving in a positive direction creatively even as the show’s overall tone grows more pessimistic.