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.