'Lost' finds its spiritual TV successor: 'The Leftovers'

Damon Lindelof (left) and Tom Perrotta. (Reuters)

Damon Lindelof (left) and Tom Perrotta. (Reuters)

At first glance, The Leftovers presents plenty of reasons to be wary. It’s stuffed with weighty ideas about science, religion and psychology. It taps into the peculiarly American fascination with The Rapture: the belief that there will be a divine evacuation effort prior to the end of the world, which will cause all true-believing Christians to suddenly vanish into thin air.

Perhaps the most ominous danger sign is the fact that The Leftovers is made by the same person who created Lost, Damon Lindelof. Lost was an innovative television series that devolved into an incoherent mess in its final seasons, and ended in a way that managed to annoy almost its entire fan base.
The Leftovers feels, in many respects, like Lost’s spiritual successor. But it’s so well-constructed that I’m inclined to be optimistic; to believe that it will finally fulfil the intrinsic promise of Lost, rather than repeating the earlier show’s mistakes.

The Leftovers takes place three years after a rapture-like event in which 2% of the world’s population vanished. It’s purposefully made unclear whether this was really the religious rapture, an unexplained natural event, or something else entirely. There’s no obvious pattern among those who’ve vanished, who included children, criminals, and even the Pope Emeritus. Religious leaders can’t agree on what it means, and scientists don’t have any explanation of what caused it.

Although The Leftovers begins with a fantastical premise, it executes this idea in a way that is surprisingly – and pleasingly – subtle. It doesn’t dramatise the mass disappearance by showing, for example, pilotless planes falling out of the sky. Once the show is underway, it avoids fancy narrative techniques like time-skipping, in favour a simple chronological style. All of this helps to keep this rather unsettling story grounded, for the most part, in a sense of reality.

The character drama that lies at the heart of the series is believable and well-realised. The central and character is Kevin Garvey, the sheriff of a small American town, played by actor Justin Theroux. The people around him are all trying, in different ways, to cope with the new world in which they find themselves. His boss, the mayor, represents a political class that wants to paper over the social cracks and convince everyone to move on. But his daughter, and much of the rest of the town, are incapable of moving on. They’re angry, disillusioned, and seem to be descending into a form of collective madness.

Unanswered questions
A handful of people have gone a step further, and joined a bizarre religious cult called the “Guilty Remnant”, or “GRs”, who live in a compound where nobody speaks, everybody wears white and chain-smokes all the time. From the perspective of the rest of the town, they’re about as likeable as the Westboro Baptist Church.

Of course, all of this leaves plenty of unanswered questions. Which brings us back to the biggest problem that the show faces: the difficulty of winning audiences’ trust in light of the unfortunate baggage that it’s inherited from Lost.  

Mystery has always been an essential ingredient to Lindelof’s work, but in the end, a mystery is only valuable if it results in some sort of concrete pay-off. Many viewers will be understandably reluctant to sign up for multiple seasons of cryptic teasing that never turns into anything solid.

However, I see two reasons for optimism on this point. First is the fact the The Leftovers is adapted from a book, by Tom Perrotta. Regardless of how far it deviates from source material, this presumably means that there’s a fully-realised ending waiting for us down the line. Then there’s Lindelof himself, who has had four years to reflect on the unpopularity on the Lost finale. In a recent New York Times interview, he seemed positively contrite: “I’m thinking, Where did I go wrong? What can I learn from Lost? How can this not happen again?”

In a sense, the question of whether to watch The Leftovers is really a question of whether you believe in second chances. And for what it’s worth, I do. I’m entranced by Lindelof’s new project: by its characters, by the richness of its world, and by the beauty of the images on screen. And, yes, by the mysteries. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

The Leftovers is shown on Saturdays at 9pm on M-Net

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