HBO's first-season drama stood tall but fell flat on its face


There’s nothing more exciting than a show that immediately grips you during its pilot. But there’s also nothing more frustrating than a show that fails to maintain that excitement through the season’s end.

HBO’s new drama “The Leftovers” is a shining example of this disappointment at work. Despite a pilot that introduced nuanced characters and captivating conflict, the show ultimately fizzled and made its flaws incredibly apparent by the season’s end.

Loosely based on the book by co-showrunner Tom Perrotta (working with Damon Lindelof of “Lost” fame), “The Leftovers” takes place three years after two percent of the world’s population disappeared. Some believe it’s the Rapture, while others believe it to be random event, but its cause as of yet has not been explained. The show focuses on small-town police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his family, and the town’s other residents. The town is plagued by the Guilty Remnant, a cult-like organization whose members take a vow of silence, wear only white, chain-smoke, and stalk residents to remind them of the disappearance that they believe the world has been trying to forget.

From the very beginning, the saving grace of “The Leftovers” has been its complex set of characters, whose inner demons make them so compelling. Kevin struggles to maintain his sanity while policing a town that seems on the brink of collapse. His wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has joined the Guilty Remnant to cope with an unspecified loss. His daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), attempts to navigate adolescence in the face of both the disappearance and her family’s dissolution. Then there’s Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose entire family disappeared, and who, for much of the season, remains shrouded in mystery. There are a number of other revolving characters, but these four ultimately make up the core of the show, and the most captivating part of “The Leftovers” lies in watching them deal with their grief.

These characters are also a major part of what makes the pilot so gripping. The first few episodes, directed by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights” fame, have a very clear, unified sense of style. Vibrant color palettes and well-curated soundtracks dominate the pilot; one sequence, in which the Guilty Remnant is attacked by the townspeople and unsuccessfully defended by the police, uses James Blake’s “Retrograde” and color contrast to drive the conflict home.

Some of the show’s stronger moments come in its single-character-focused episodes; Nora’s episode in particular sheds new light on a character who was previously an enigma. It’s also here that her grief manifests itself in incredibly interesting ways, as she drunkenly discusses the departure of her entire family.

Unfortunately, all of this isn’t enough to sustain the show’s momentum. Some character arcs are over-emphasized, while others—especially Meg’s (Liv Tyler), a woman who joins the Guilty Remnant—remain dormant for multiple episodes at a time. What’s more, these minor story arcs receive little to no attention when they are present. This lack of focus ultimately derails the show when it speeds up during its second half.

And even when the show does speed up, the actions seem to happen solely to further the plot, rather than staying true to character. Take Patti (Ann Dowd), the leader of the Guilty Remnant, for example. The show spends a great deal of time emphasizing her and Laurie’s association with one another, establishing the Guilty Remnant as a quasi-feminist influence in both of their lives. However, her character arc is ultimately undermined in favor of Kevin’s, and she is placed on the sidelines in a confusing way.

What’s worse, the show suffers from an awkward sequencing of episodes. The only flashback episode in the first season is its penultimate one, which is befuddling to say the least. It touches on and contrasts with story arcs set up through the show’s run, forcing viewers to revisit the previous eight hours of television rather than using the episode as a mid-season marker point.

It’s not as if this is terrible television. It’s not even “so-bad-it’s-good-television.” Instead, it’s a show that started out with everything going for it and fizzled out to just be “O.K.” Despite a strong cast, interesting characters, and an inherently interesting premise, “The Leftovers” is a test of how long viewers are willing to keep watching.

  • slongo

    I like it.

  • Nick

    I don’t agree. I like this show a lot.

  • MegaMan

    Very good show. Author prob likes Agents of Shield

  • Leftovers fan

    This is a great show so far. I haven’t seen anything else like it before. It is amazingly unique

  • Litch

    I have been hooked since the first episode and I am waiting for more.

  • mezdup

    The finale hasn’t even aired yet..

  • C.R.

    I love this show & look forward to the season finale. The piano music is so beautifully haunting, sometimes I can’t get it out of my head.

  • CityRat2014

    Great show. Excellent writing. Different method of story telling with each episode. Existential. Thought provoking. Argus is myopic to say the least.

  • Ben

    I disagree, the show is doing a very good job and I have been amused by the episodes focused on a single character like the priest or especially Nora. I hope the season finale is as good as the other episodes.

  • sssojourn .

    With so much bullshit reality shows on tv, you would think the writer of this article would praise such a show. I thought it was excellent in premise, it’s acting, and it’s story line. Please mr author , go back to watching honey boo boo or some other nonsensical show.

  • Eddie Rivera

    LOL, the author of this article probably watches non-sense on TV and doesn’t know how to react when they finally watch a show of quality.

  • Eddie Rivera

    LOL, the author of this article probably watches non-sense on TV and doesn’t know how to react when they finally watch a show of quality.

  • John

    I don’t think the show has fizzled at all im dying of anticipation to see how the season ends. Also of course Kevins story is going to over shadow pattis hes the main character. I swear this author is dog shit he must still be butt hurt that true blood is over.

  • kia

    Author is clearly a hater. I have never been hooked on a show like this one. And the mystery of the characters is what makes the show great and has the viewers coming back.

  • MsIsyss76

    Hmm. I think its one of the best shows of 2014 and Im not saying that loosely. The suspense is great. The way the show is actually being played out is rather unique and fresh. The chatacters are awesome. I love what each person brings to their role. Im excited for the finale because the last episode shed some light for me and now I kind of “get” why some of them are the way they are. Great show, I will miss it until next season.

  • Mikael

    I didn’t see any of the flaws that you were talking about, it has it’s weak points, right. But just as breaking bad at the beginnig, some seasons later it turned epic. This show is not for everyone, it’s just for patience people who are prepared to wait for the development of the story.

  • Ju

    The first few episodes were kind of a mess, I’ll admit. It’s not like I ever thought of dropping the show, because mostly of Kevin and Nora (and Matt in a smaller scale), but it was very frustrating not knowing where the show wanted to get at. From “Gladys” on, though (episode 1.05), it’s only been getting better and more gripping. The last two episodes aired, with only the finale coming, provided a whole lot of insight and I for one can’t wait for Sunday and season 2. It’s an amazing show that maybe hasn’t started all that great but has definitely found its stride and wow, I could not disagree with this article more. Oh well. Hopefully it won’t scare people away from this great show.