Have you ever found yourself in a relationship with someone you love, but with whom you aren’t IN love? If so, you know exactly how I feel about The Leftovers.
The Leftovers is the new hour-long drama from HBO that focuses on the residents of a small town in New York a few years after two percent of the world’s population suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. The show was born from the minds of Damon Lindelof, best known as an executive producer and show-runner of Lost, and Tom Perrotta, upon whose 2011 novel of the same name the series is based. The show looks and feels like it is destined to be the latest in a long line of critically adored HBO productions, and part of me wants to look it in the eyes and pledge my undying affection. But after watching the first four episodes, I’m having serious reservations about committing to it for the long run. Here’s why:
1. The pace is a disgrace.
Seriously, y’all, this show is slower than a herd of turtles. A lot of hour-long dramas struggle with finding a balance between events that drive the plot forward and extended stretches of wheel-spinning, but it’s probably not a good sign when a decent portion of the first four episodes right out of the gate feel like we’re already knee-deep in mud-stuck territory. I don’t mind a slow build, but GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!
2. The show is not about what I thought it would be about.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was excited, but wary, about The Leftovers. Given my track record with shows that center around a mysterious event, I went in with my guard up, determined not to get sucked in only to be left disappointed if the show was cancelled early, leaving the mystery forever unresolved. But I quickly realized the show doesn’t seem to give a squat about ever answering the question of “What happened to all those people who suddenly disappeared?” (A fact that is supported by recent comments from Lindelof in various interviews.) And maybe it shouldn’t. I respect the creators’ right to use that mystery solely as the backdrop upon which to explore the impact such an event would have on the people left behind. In theory, that’s a concept that could work and be profoundly interesting. But I’m not confident that concept is going to work on THIS show. Sadly, I think a large part of the problem is the cast, which outside of the chief of police played by Justin Theroux and the reverend played by Christopher Eccleston, is pretty underwhelming (a fact that is especially disappointing because I originally thought the cast would be one of the show’s strengths). The proceedings are bland enough that even the possibility that Lindelof and Perrotta may strive to answer the mysteries of the show a couple of seasons down the road isn’t enough to hold my interest. I’m to the point where I’d rather wait and read about the big reveal on Wikipedia in a couple of years than have to suffer the drudgery of this show in real time.
3. HBO’s “action-packed” promos.
At the conclusion of the last two episodes, HBO skipped the traditional “on next week’s episode” previews in favor of “in the weeks ahead” clips. On the surface, this may not seem like cause for concern, but in reality it’s a huge red flag. The clips are filled with a bunch of tense, dramatic moments cobbled together to entice viewers to keep tuning in, because LOOK AT ALL THIS CRAZY STUFF THAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN! And that’s worrisome because it signals that the crazy stuff likely isn’t going to happen any time soon. I’m not sure I can sit through another three or four episodes of watching emotionally crippled townsfolk wrestle with their existential crises. If I had to guess, I’d say the bulk of the action previewed will occur in the last two or three episodes of the season. That’s nothing new; most hour-long dramas these days save the real action for the season’s penultimate and final episodes. The problem is The Leftovers simply hasn’t pulled me in enough to sit around and wait for the action — as pulse pounding as it may ultimately be — to unfurl.
4. Symbolism isn’t effective if you have to explain it.
You know the old saying, “A joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it?” Well, the same applies to symbolism in high-concept dramas. One of the key plot points in last week’s episode involved Theroux’s character trying to track down a missing baby Jesus that someone stole from the town’s Nativity Scene. The religious symbolism associated with this task was so heavy-handed that it actually made me wince a couple of times. Dealing with questions about religion, spirituality and faith in works of pop culture isn’t easy. In fact, few shows or movies in recent memory have done it really well. But if those topics serve as key themes at the core of your show, you better be equipped to address them in a way that doesn’t leave your audience feeling like they are being beaten over the head with clumsy metaphors. Through the first four episodes, there’s not much evidence that the show’s writers are up to that task.
5. “It was all a dream…OR WAS IT?!”
There are several moments in the first four episodes where a character experiences something out of the ordinary and the scenes are presented in such a way that the audience is purposely left wondering if the action depicted on the screen actually happened or if it simply occurred in the character’s mind. I don’t mind the occasional use of this device for storytelling purposes, but I just feel like it’s a crutch that is being leaned on way too heavily in the early going, putting large chunks of the story in question and creating a cast full of unreliable narrators. Am I supposed to watch multiple seasons of a show where there’s a good chance I’ll never know for sure if key events are real or imagined? That sounds like an exhausting — and ultimately unrewarding — exercise. And having watched Lost devolve into whatever it was supposed to be during its final season, I think it’s safe to say I’ve been on this ride before and I’m not dying to take another spin. I’d rather spend the summer watching trashy reality shows like Big Brother where I know everything is fake.