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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Is "The Leftovers" Damon Lindelof's response to "Lost" fan rage?


It's hard to cope with a question that lacks a known answer. When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March, people all over the world were ravenous for information, updates and clues. Hours went by, and then days, and then months - each lead became a red herring, each possibility turned up empty. People even offhandedly compared the plane's disappearance to the television show Lost - superficially because it also involved a plane that went missing, but also because it seemed impossible that there weren't darker, unknown mysteries surrounding the disappearance. 

Because how could we not know?

That kind of agonizing pain between shock and acceptance, where many relatives and family of flight MH370 still are, is where Damon Lindelof's new HBO Series The Leftovers lives.  In the premiere's first few minutes, we see people going about their fairly typical days when, suddenly, a small portion of people disappear. Flash-forward to three years later, and we learn that the people who disappeared accounted for roughly 2% of the world's population. The event occurred world-wide, and after numerous investigations, there is absolutely no progress in the search for answers. No one knows how, why, what these people had in common, or where they are. The day is known simply as October 14th, and the atmosphere feels a lot like what the U.S. experienced after 9/11, but magnified. 

The Leftovers is Lindelof's first foray back into television since Lost. Both of these shows are connected by a central premise: How can we move on when we don't know what really happened? But what's interesting is the nature of the premise. Lost never intended to ask this question; the question wasn't one for the characters so much as one generated by a vocal audience, a by-product of a show that generated mysteries faster than it could answer them.  Fans were divided on the series' conclusion, with some accepting that the show could never answer all the mysteries it had created, and others feeling cheated out of the knowledge they felt they deserved.  

It's obviously impossible to compare being confused by the ending of a TV show to not knowing for certain how your loved ones died or where they are, but the relationship remains: the experience is in the not knowing. Making a show specifically about a lack of answers feels like a very intentional and even personal move for Lindelof, and that rather than making the mistake of building up the mystery, this time, it feels like The Leftovers is on a mission to force us to live in it. 

The show's first episode struck a very sombre and introductory note, mostly giving us as much exposition as it could without being overbearing, and introducing us to a fairly large cast. In spite of his impressive resume as both a writer and Hollywood actor, in his private life Justin Theroux is basically known as "Mr. Aniston" as of late. If there were a performance to change that, my money's on it being this one, provided the show picks up steam and becomes the water cooler buzz that HBO intends. Theroux is the central and arguably strongest player in the cast, which also includes a few other performers that piqued my interest (including Christopher Eccleston and Liv Tyler) but of whom we only saw glimpses in this first episode.

My only complaint about the series opener was the unrelenting tone. Trying to move on in the wake of a tragedy - particularly one so unresolved - is a nuanced issue. We got occasional glimpses into emotions like anger, confusion, frustration, but the show's musical score and tone mostly nestled into a complete feeling of sorrow and despair. Given the growing anger and frustration of everyone left to deal with this mystery, it felt like the show would have benefited from a small reprieve from the soft, sad piano score, perhaps even to venture into something closer to dread. 

There was a lot of plot-setting and architecture in this first episode, and while it didn't stand out as a shocking cinematic achievement, it mostly hit the right buttons. Unlike all of the shows after Lost that tried to recreate the mystery (Flash-Forward and Under the Dome in particular comes to mind), The Leftovers sets itself up in a way that is similar but also somewhat separate. I only hope it continues a trajectory that deals with the consequences of living with a mystery - and the search for answers -  rather than one that sets out to resolve the mystery itself. 

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