Monday, December 14, 2015

TV Review: "The Leftovers" Season One

720 viewing hours ... and I still don't get it!
Stop me if you've heard this one: On a fine October's day, 2% of the world's population vanish -- poof. No, it's not the Rapture -- it's the premise of The Leftovers. This HBO series is the brainchild of Damon Lindelof (the co-creator of Lost and co-screenwriter of half of the decade's major sci-fi movies) and Tom Perotta, the author of the novel the series loosely adapts. What do I think?

I'm lost, people. Just plain lost.

On the one hand, the series honors my big rule for decent sci-fi: Take your premise seriously. Imagine a situation and ask yourself: What would actually happen? Then seriously try to answer that question. The series does that. The picture it paints ...

Most people try to get on with their lives, as most people usually do after bad stuff happens. They deal with the loss by ignoring it, or paying $40,000 smackers to outfits that create exact replicas of departed loved ones so survivors can bury 'em and get closure.

Other people just get crazy. A host of cults spring up, straight out of Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The Guilty Remnant is the worst of the bunch -- or at least the most irritating. They dress in white, don't talk, and smoke like fiends -- because what's the damn point of good health in the apocalypse? Their mission in life: Don't let people get over what happened. They fulfill their mission with sick mind games that make the Westboro Baptist Church look like the Welcome Wagon.

The government responds by forcing grieving survivors to answer an irritating questionnaire before getting benefits and turning the ATF into the cult-exterminating ATFEC -- namely the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults. Plausible enough, I guess. 

Against this wacky backdrop, the action unfolds in parallel storylines involving assorted characters. (Exactly as it did on Lost -- and a thousand other shows.) There's the sheriff, his bratty daughter, his missing son, his estranged wife who left him for the chain-smoking cult, the leader of another cult who hugs the pain out of you when he isn't impregnating Asian teenage girls, a reverend who points out the sins of the vanished people to prove the event wasn't the Rapture, a guy who shoots dogs, you get the picture. Well-drawn characters, decent dialog, no sneer intended. It's a quality show. On the other hand ...

It's so damn depressing. The show gives you the bad news -- and it always turns out to be a segue to even worse news. Your dog died. Because your daughter ran him over. Right before she crashed into the kindergarten killing herself and setting all the little kids on fire. That's the basic dynamic, folks. I'd throw in Louis CK doing a few comedy routines. But that's just me.

Hey, a show has every right to be depressing, just so long as it's compelling. The Leftovers usually is. What's compelling is the post-apocalyptic freak show -- and the implied detective story. But that mystery turns out to be a cheat -- in the Lost tradition.

In case you've blocked that painful memory, here's what I'm talking about ...

Lost seemed so ground-breaking at first. Then it didn't. Following in the footsteps of Chris Carter's X-Files, Lindelhof wrote himself in a thousand corners and then distracted you with manic hand-waving. Lost isn't purgatory, I tell you. Actually it is purgatory. Critics and formerly fanatic viewers excoriated Lindelof for Lost's logic holes, rabid Maguffins and bogus answers. The Leftovers is Lindelof's response.

You viewers hate my bogus answers? Fine. How about no answers?

Lindelof is clear on that point: The show will never give you answers. You'll never find out why all those people disappeared. What counts is the reaction of the people left behind. Hey, how often in life do we ever know what the hell happened anyway?  

OK. It's a legitimate, if infuriating artistic, stance. After all, Stanislas Lem's Solaris never told you what the sentient planet was up to; Peter Weir's The Picnic at Hanging Rock never revealed what happened to the two vanished girls. Yeah, yeah. Fine. The promise of an answer is missing here too, though the tease remains in various Twin Peaks-style ghost whispers, visions and crazy coincidences. This feels less like arty cleverness and more like lazy writing. (Connecting the dots is hard, after all.) The show tells us we'll never know the truth -- then dangles the carrot of revelation. I don't want to bite ...

But I'll probably watch the damn second season anyway.

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