Bleak isn’t the same thing as profound. That’s easy to forget in an antihero era that’s brought us brilliant downers such as Breaking Bad and Fargo. So approach The Leftovers with caution. Created by Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Tom Perrotta, who adapted it from Perrotta’s novel, the drama explores the aftermath of the Sudden Departure, a Rapture-like event in which 140 million people vanished into thin air, seemingly randomly. A newscast reveals that Shakira, the Pope, and Gary Busey are among the departed — a rare moment of levity on this postapocalyptic show. While Lindelof wrenches real suspense from the story, the series is grim enough to raise the question, If a drama is going to make you feel this bad, doesn’t it have to be better than just good?
To be fair, it begins with a genuinely affecting moment: In the small town of Mapleton, N.Y., a young mother is shushing her baby when he disappears from his car seat, leaving her screaming his name. But when the action cuts to a stray dog getting shot in the head — just as police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) reaches out to pet it — the scene feels manipulative. (And more dogs will die before the season ends.)
As a meditation on grief, The Leftovers can be oppressive. Three years after the Departure, Kevin is left to raise his kids without his wife, struggling with a sullen teenage daughter (Margaret Qualley) and a son (Chris Zylka) who is helping Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a cult leader who believes he can heal people by hugging them. Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a group called the Guilty Remnant, who wear white clothes, don’t speak, and seem to be sad about…something. And all the while, Reverend Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), who’s caring for his bedridden wife, is trying to convince the town that the Departure wasn’t religious. With drama-inflating slow-motion sequences and an endless repetition of the same wistful score, the show forces us to feel sorry for characters who haven’t yet earned our sympathy.
As a mystery, however, it’s gripping. Flashbacks and dreams blur the line between fantasy and reality, leaving lots of juicy questions. Was the Departure actually random? Can Holy Wayne really heal people? Is the dog killer real, or is Kevin going crazy? Between the mystical animals and the wild-theory-ready plot, Lost fans will eat this up like so much Dharma peanut butter. But Perrotta’s book never offers an explanation for the Departure, which might lead some to worry that just as with Lost, some questions will never be answered. So it’s hard to tell how much violence and melancholy will make this worth your time. You can easily sympathize with those hounds while watching The Leftovers: You never know when you’re gonna get hurt. B