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Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, the executive producers of “The Leftovers,” which begins Sunday night on HBO, would seem to be as natural a pairing as Dover sole and French fries. Perrotta is the author of elegant contemplations about life in contemporary suburbia, like “Little Children.” Lindelof was a showrunner for the eerie melodrama, “Lost,” and scriptwriter of several science-fiction films.
When you think about it, though, what’s wrong with Dover sole and French fries? Could be pretty tasty. Of course, there are a bazillion folks out there who would resent calling “Lost” melodrama or a symbol of empty calories. I enjoyed the show but never really bought into the sense that the writers had that much to say about the way the world works, as evidenced by the disastrous finale. And a lot of the characters seemed to be getting by more on attitude and eccentricity than on development.
With “The Leftovers,” though, Lindelof has Perrotta’s excellent 2011 novel as a jumping off point. One day, according to the book, 2 percent of the world’s population just ups and simultaneously disappears. Is it the Rapture? Who knows. The Belmont author is less interested in the cause than in the effect — how those left behind cope with the event. Many turn to some form of alternative religion as cults spring up to explain what happened and why. Others just try to cope.
Lindelof and HBO are not interested in re-creating the book. The characters are similar, but different. Some have the same names but different jobs. The central figure, Kevin Garvey, isn’t a low-key mayor anymore, but a high-maintenance police chief (Justin Theroux). There’s significantly more violence and the sex is less understated, at least in the first three episodes.
But it’s not “Game of Thrones.” Perrotta has more than given his blessing to the project. He’s a co-writer and executive producer, though Lindelof has final say. But as different as it is, “The Leftovers” is still an exploration of character, loss, family, religion, and finding meaning in life, existential or otherwise.
The aesthetic differences are more intriguing. The book begins with a matter-of-fact, after-the-fact description of “the sudden departure,” noting that experts were denying that it was the Rapture because of the random nature of the “harvest.” He then very quietly begins shaping his characters’ lives and reactions.
By contrast, Lindelof begins with the departure — a stressed-out mother screaming for her baby who was in the back seat, cars crashing. Quiet it is not. There are shock flashbacks and dreams. The hint of supernaturalism and even some of the camerawork recall the world of “Lost,” even though the director (Peter Berg) and cinematographer (Todd McMullen) worked on the more Perrotta-like “Friday Night Lights.”
Here's the beginning and some other scenes:
Stephen King famously described Perrotta’s book as “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw” in the New York Times. To me, that’s a misreading of the book, but a pretty accurate description of the first three episodes. Despite the departure, the book still feels like it’s our world. The series feels like another world that’s a stand-in for ours, like the world of many “TZ” episodes.
HBO describes the show as a series and Lindelof is even talking about this year’s 10 episodes as “the first season.” While the book, obviously, has a beginning, middle and end, the series can go on as long as “Lost” did.
Hopefully it won’t overstay its welcome. There’s no sign of that in the first three episodes. The writing, acting and filming are excellent and there are even flashes of humor as the police chief puts a bagel in the rolling toaster and when it doesn’t come out we’re left to wonder if disappearance is the new normal.
Garvey’s family is still the center of things. His wife (Amy Brenneman) has joined one cult, whose members have taken a vow of silence, dress in white and stalk people whom they want to recruit. They also chain smoke. All attempts at romance, family, government are ridiculous. The end of the world is all we should be preparing ourselves for.
His son has joined another cult answering to a Jim Jones figure who seems primarily interested in underage Asian girls. Garvey’s daughter still lives at home, but her “whatever” attitude makes her one of the more lost figures on the show.
The Garveys are really only the first of equals in the large cast. The third episode is about a minister (Christopher Eccleston) who now writes scurrilous articles about the departed, to prove that this wasn’t the Rapture. He’s in the book, too, and is a good example of why both Lindelof and Perrotta thought there were more stories to tell about these people.
They’re right. I’m all ears. And eyes.
By the way, the due date for the non-Rapture is October 14. I think we’ll all still be around to watch "The Leftovers" in November.