Review: The Leftovers 1×1 (HBO/Sky Atlantic)

Lost in resurrection

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Aquired by Sky Atlantic. Will air in September

TV is filled with death. For many shows, it’s their staple. What would 24 or Banshee be without their epic body counts? Would everyone love Game of Thrones as much were it not for its regular game of ‘Guess who’s going to pop their clogs this season’? Probably not.

In the real world, though, death generally isn’t quite as desirable, even if it is inevitable. The effects of someone’s death are almost always huge, traumatic and life-changing for those who know them. Religion can provide some comfort for the bereaved. It can even provide some answers as to why death happens at all. TV shows that remember this are few and far between.

So in many ways, The Leftovers is unusual and innovative. Adapted by Tom Perrotta, Lost‘s Damon Lindelof and Friday Night Lights’ Peter Berg from Perrotta’s book of the same name, it takes the Christian concept of the Rapture – in which the true believers in Jesus are taken up into the sky to be with God, leaving behind everyone to be judged before Jesus’s second coming – and gives it a slight twist. What if 2% of the world’s population just vanished, leaving everyone else behind, with no explanation for their departure? What would those remaining behind do? How would they feel? And without angels coming down to explain everything and given that some of that 2% include some very bad people indeed, not just the blessed – I mean, Gary Busey was one of those who disappeared. Gary Busey – could people even be sure it was God and not aliens or some bizarre space-time accident that caused the disappearance?

The answer to this existential dilemma, it appears, is be largely miserable, dull and nihilistic. Strangely, in fact, it seems like the animals have a better idea about what’s going on than the humans do.

Here’s a trailer. If you’re in the US, though, you can watch the whole of the first episode over on Yahoo.

When 2% of the world’s population abruptly disappears without explanation, the world struggles to come to terms with what happened. Three years later, the HBO drama series, ‘The Leftovers’ is the story of the people who didn’t make the cut. Based on the bestselling novel by Tom Perrotta, ‘The Leftovers’ follows Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), a father of two and the chief of police in a small New York suburb, as he tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy when the notion no longer applies. Created by ‘Lost’ co-creator Damon Lindelof and acclaimed novelist Tom Perrotta, the series is executive produced by Lindelof, Perrotta and ‘Friday Night Lights’ executive producers Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey.  Lindelof serves as the series showrunner.

Is it any good?
It’s a bit of a slog to be honest, with not a huge amount to recommend it. 

You might have thought the show would examine religion but instead, it largely looks at how a small town reacts to having a significant number of deaths, without anyone thinking that near-conclusive proof of the existence of God and the afterlife might be a good thing. Everyone just gives up and starts to be bad and self-destructive, without the slightest hint of joy, renewed faith in God or even desire to act nicely just in case Judgement Day is round the corner. 

Arguably, that might be the case; but arguably, some combination of this and Three Moons Over Milford‘s more optimistic ‘life is for living’ prediction is more likely. Hell, I’d be more inclined to believe The Handmaid’s Tale would happen with fundamentalist religion taking over than a pure mope-athon, where everyone starts reading Albert Camus and people on TV start talking about Wittgenstein, as The Leftovers intimates.

However, given this is worthy drama, misery is the name of the game. Even those people who do discover God end up discovering some weird alternative cults, in which silence, continual chain smoking and standing around dressed in white, staring at people to annoy them, are the key Commandments.

Largely, the show reflects the likes of rubbish anthology movie such as The Informers, where various characters wander around in their own plot threads, doing their own things, occasionally popping up in the backgrounds of each others’ stories. While Peter Berg’s direction and influence gives the whole show a Friday Night Lights feel and depicts small town life well – even if it a nihilistic town, populated by people who just don’t care any more – there really aren’t that many characters that you can care for or even be interested in. You can feel sad for their loss – but not for them. They’re all nobs.

Lindelof’s influence doesn’t appear to have made the show any weirder, either, although there are odd touches (which might be in the original book for all I know). The animals appear to be smarter and/or possessed and/or capable of entering dreams since the Rapture. Or maybe people are now having prophetic dreams. There’s also another cult leader (who might be an angel or merely be able to absolve sins) who predicts that now that three years has elasped since the Rapture, the grace period is over and a whole new slew of miracles is about to happen.

The show has a good cast that includes Liv Tyler, Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman and Christopher Eccleston and Patterson Joseph in minor roles. But they’re all just trying to do serious in a show that largely uses serious as a frame of mind, rather than as a genuine way to examine the issues. The Leftovers feels like a show that thinks people should watch it because it’s about An Important Thing, rather than because it’s got any real depth, ideas or anything else to offer on any aspect of that Important Thing – or even because it’s a good piece of drama.

But it’s early days and the show’s not an absolute loss. I’ll stick with it, mainly for the cast, I suspect. But really, there are much better things to do with your life – afterlife or not – than watch The Leftovers.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.