When two percent of world’s population disappears in an instant, who, exactly, are the chosen ones? The departed, or those left behind?
“The Leftovers,” HBO’s elegiac new series from “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta, grapples with that conundrum, and what it means to survive an inexplicable event, to inconclusive affect. Were 140 million people taken as part of the Rapture? Were they rewarded? Punished? Or randomly selected? The people taken offer no clues: They include entertainers as disparate as Bonnie Raitt and Gary Busey.
The event dwarfs even 9/11 in scale, and the uncertainty it engenders around the world is even more profound.
Three years after the Great Departure, as it is commonly called, residents of Mapleton, N.Y., are still coming to terms with the wrenching event. They’re grieving, ranting and struggling to go on with their business. Few seem to have reached Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s fifth and final stage of mourning, acceptance.
A white-garbed cult called the Guilty Remnant keeps picking up new recruits in town. Across the country, a man called Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) promises relief from suffering with restorative hugs.
A “Heroes Day” parade to honor the Departed sparks debate between those who question whether it’s an appropriate name for the vanished and those that just want to move on, like beleaguered police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux).
Theroux anchors the show as a man struggling with his own fractured family. His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) and son Tom (Chris Zylka) are both displaced, and teen daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) is testing boundaries with her pals. There are also plenty of other affecting performances, including by Ann Dowd as the GR leader.
The series, based on the book of the same name, gets off to a dreamy start in its super-sized 75-minute initial installment. The mass disappearance is powerful — and confusing — just like some of the events three years later. Random dogs have a way of showing up, for instance, and they may or may not be man’s best friend.
The second installment shakes off some of the dreamlike quality with a law enforcement raid. But the society it presents, and the storytelling itself, is far from ordinary: Individual stories unfold slowly and elliptically. There are flashbacks, characters that may be apparitions, and suggestions of religious imagery.
Perrotta, who mined similarly melancholy territory with “Little Children,” seems like a good partner for Lindelof, who is still bruised over blowback to the ending of “Lost.”
The show is drawing early comparisons to “Twin Peaks” and HBO’s own “True Detective” for its offbeat and moody storytelling. There’s a key difference, though: The earlier shows were rooted in horrific murders, while “The Leftovers” attempts to wrestle with metaphysical puzzles. Viewers’ patience for the show and its dreamlike pace will likely depend on their appetites for soul-searching about the afterlife.
Some may want to follow chief Garvey’s lead and try and move on with their daily lives. After a few episodes, I’m on the brink of doing just that.
“The Leftovers” debuts 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.