The Leftovers Manufactures Meaningless Suspense

July 2, 2014


HBO’s newest series, The Leftovers, was created by Damon Lindelof, one of the head writers on Lost. This should raise some red flags.

Lost had its moments: It set up an intriguing premise, and was great at building suspense and mystery. But the mysteries grew and grew, and the resolutions seemed farther and farther away; cliffhangers would tease at revelations, only to see the story move in a completely different direction in the next episode. I gave up midway through the second season, abandoning any hopes I would ever see anything resolved.

The Leftovers starts with a similarly mysterious premise: One day, in a Rapture-type event, people disappear. But with the series starting three years after the mass disappearance, it creates a second mystery: What has happened since the disappearance?

This is an odd sort of mystery, because the characters all know what happened during those three years; as such, The Leftovers seems largely built upon keeping things from the audience. There’s a certain amount of logic to this – while the world of The Leftovers is foreign to viewers, it’s become an everyday reality for the characters within it – but it also requires the script to avoid some obvious topics until they can be revealed in the most dramatic fashion.

A mild spoiler for the pilot follows. Except it’s not really a spoiler, as we shall soon see. 

After a variety of bad things happening on the 3rd anniversary of the disappearance, Police Chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) gets drunk and shows up at the home of the Guilty Remnants, a cult that formed in the wake of the disappearance and so far is defined by wearing white, smoking, and taking a vow of silence. Garvey is looking for someone named Laurie, calling out her name, and beating up anyone that stands in his way. Finally, someone emerges from a house, and the camera switches to their point of view, their identity obscured out of focus. Who could it possibly be?

Justin Theroux in The Leftovers

After lingering on the back of Laurie’s out-of-focus head for five or ten seconds, her identity is finally revealed. It’s Amy Brenneman’s previously unnamed character.

But there’s no meaningful suspense, because it had to be Brenneman’s character. There are two possibilities regarding who Theroux is looking for:

  1. A character we’ve seen before;
  2. A character we’ve never seen before.

If it’s 2, it doesn’t matter – there’s no reason to obscure the identity of a mysterious person we’ve never seen before.

But if it’s 1, it’s also an extremely simple process of elimination: While there are many members of the Remnants cult, their story has been told exclusively from the point of view of Brenneman’s character. At this point in the series – one episode! – there’s no one else in the Remnants that Garvey would be coming to see that the audience should be expected to care about.

It’s a ten-second sequence sequence, but it says so much about the intentions of The Leftovers: In a show built on a huge mystery, it’s created dozens of smaller mysteries and drawn them out for maximum effect, creating questions where there didn’t need to be. One episode in, it’s already a slave to the Plot Twist.  Even worse, it appears to have done so in the belief that its audience is stupid.