You might be wondering why I’ve chosen this particular series for my next episodic reviews. To be honest, I’m kind of wondering the same. This is my third time trying to start this series, and I think the format of these reviews might help me appreciate it for once. I’ve been hearing about the brilliance of this show for years, and while I don’t tend to put much merit into vague praise, there is something captivating about the show’s aesthetic. My limited familiarity with it is enough that I can say I’m casually interested, but the pacing at the start is too slow for me to really sink my teeth into it without some effort. Well, here’s that effort. I don’t know if writing reviews for it will make it more or less entertaining to watch, but hopefully it’ll be enough of a push for me to see what all of the fuss is about.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode One: Pilot – ***
Part One: Two Cults. Two of Them.
The first episode wastes little time establishing the premise: a Rapture-like event has seized 2% of the world’s population, and the rest is left to deal with the fallout. However, this story is not interested in telling a pulpy narrative about coming to Jesus nor warning of the dangers of not being Christian enough. At least in its first episode, the show doesn’t lean toward any particular religious interpretation, even though the concept of religion seems somewhat important to it. The event has no name and is pointedly divorced from any metaphysical meaning to the people of the show, treated instead like a sudden disaster with no explanation or purpose. The people who disappeared seem to be wholly random, some of them innocent while others were assholes.
The narrative starts in earnest three years after the event, cutting between short scenes of characters going about their new, clearly altered lives. The first character seen, protagonist Kevin Garvey, is a policeman who seems isolated and distraught, seeming to have lost his entire family. He runs into a strange man who drives around shooting stray dogs and becomes intent on catching this man. Over the course of the episode, we see other characters as well, including a teenage girl with anger issues, a boy driving a Texas congressman to a mountain lodge to meet a cult leader, and a woman who belongs to a silent smoking cult (not to be confused with the mountain lodge cult) called the Guilty Remnant. We soon realize that these characters are Kevin’s family and that they haven’t disappeared, but have nonetheless become estranged from each other.
This realization introduces a prominent theme in the first episode that seems to pervade the rest of the season – that of people trying to reason with the inexplicable. While the show establishes a very clear supernatural event in the disappearances, and continues to nurse an uncanny atmosphere with a ghostly deer, packs of wild dogs, and Kevin’s nightmares, it never hints at a cause for anything unusual. It’s more interested in how people respond to things that don’t make sense. Kevin starts seeing things that may be premonitions, or may be hallucinations. His son, Tommy, joins a cult but continues to act like an impudent youth. His wife, Laurie, joins a different cult and tries to immerse herself to the exclusion of all else. His daughter, Jill, lashes out at her friends and family despite otherwise being a traditional good student. All of these characters are unhappy with the direction their lives have gone, but they all seem powerless to make themselves happier. The episode implies that the characters are engaging in unusual behaviors or decisions in the pursuit of happiness, or at least normalcy, but it likewise asserts that they remain unfulfilled.
We see other characters as well, some of whom will come to play more prominent roles, such as cult leader Wayne, the mysterious dog-shooting man, an “end-is-nigh” reverend, some of Kevin’s co-workers, Jill’s friends, a girl Tommy flirts with via gummy worms, and various members of the Guilty Remnant. All of them have found their own ways of dealing with life, and many of them look superficially more well-adjusted or at least happier than the main family. As the episode, and the show, progresses, we see the cracks in these side characters and how messed up they really are. Some of them have lost far more than the Garveys, and their apparent competence is merely that. This sets the precedent that all of the characters are treading water, some better than others, but none of them is any closer to reaching dry land.
Part Two: Vacancy
The rather obvious metaphor for the events in this series is depression. I don’t normally like to infer mental illness as an interpretation for a piece of media, especially when it isn’t stated outright as such, but the actions of the characters invite a parallel that feels familiar to anyone who has experienced the disease in some manner. The atmosphere is not really gloomy – in fact, the environments tend to be well-lit and most are shown during the day – but it is empty. Kevin’s morning jog at the start of the story is so absent of other human life despite the clear signs of continued human activity that the appearance of the dog from the bushes is somewhat startling. Even more so is the sudden appearance of the man who shoots the dog, and then drives off to leave Kevin alone once more.
The characters aren’t necessarily depressed in the clinical sense, but it wouldn’t be a stretch for the show to present them as such. They’re all just trying to cope, and all of them encounter frequent obstacles that they respond to. Usually they respond to these obstacles poorly.
Jill jams another student’s mouth guard into her gums, causing her whole mouth to bleed, over some fairly petty teasing. We have no idea why Lorie or Tommy joined their respective cults, but they seem to have cut the rest of their family off over it. Kevin himself joins the mystery man in shooting the stray dogs after they rather gruesomely bring down a deer. Beyond these more extreme events are the small character moments, like when Kevin smashes his family’s photo or when Jill puts it back together. There’s coherence here, and a rationality to the characters’ emotional responses, but it doesn’t seem grounded in anything.
This isn’t limited to the characters, either. The whole of this world seems just a bit out-of-sync, enough that the characters’ actions seem strange no matter what they do.
I’ve been seeing a lot of people working the Logic vs. Emotion argument into their essays and blog posts and YouTube videos. It’s often uncreatively applied to material as inconsequential as The Last Jedi, but I think the bigger issue is that there’s a core fallacy to the presentation of Logic and Emotion as polar opposites.
The two concepts don’t work as a strict dichotomy. There’s emotional drive to figuring out a complex math problem and connecting two pieces of disparate information, just as there’s a systematic approach to social interactions and artistic flair. Both concepts have a structured, yet unintuitive, basis that makes them two sides of the same coin. Sometimes they oppose or mismatch one another, but logical and emotional responses often slot quite closely together. It may be subtle or so ingrained into the act of using rationality or creativity that it’s difficult to see, but it’s there all the same.
To bring the discussion back around to The Leftovers, I think this episode rather effectively shows the inherent connection between logic and emotion. Namely, in that it lacks either. Random things happen without any rhyme or reason, yet the characters respond to these events emotionlessly, with the exception of Kevin.
The world the characters inhabit is vacant, and when it isn’t vacant, it’s routine. People try to get on with their lives despite this existential global crisis, grasping at straws for some bullshit excuse for what’s happened. When they fail to find a reason, they stop caring. Even those who have gone to extremes, joining cults and the like, treat them like boring desk jobs much of the time. When characters act happy, or more frequently, angry, it’s rote. They seem almost robotic, not only lacking a source for their anger, aside from the vague sense of incompletion in the world, but not even necessarily claiming it as their own. Lorrie is persistent about her position in the Guilty Remnant and tries to be devout, but we get no hint about her motivation to the point where it seems like she has none. Tommy trusts Wayne, the cult leader he works for, but he seems constantly uncertain about whether he should trust Wayne, and often like he doesn’t want to be there. The characters’ occasional moments of pathos, like when Jill buries a dog or when Tommy jokes with a girl he likes, show that the characters are capable of empathy, but these moments are likewise overshadowed by the weight of the show’s atmosphere. The characters are capable of caring, but their passions and interests have nothing to grasp. They act like they care, but in the end, their facade is broken.
Despite seeming to be the only character who seems to have a particular drive — keeping the town together and everyone in it safe — even Kevin eventually resigns to routine and gives up his convictions. He joins the mystery man and shoots the dogs. The people in this show fall prey to lethargy and apathy, and nothing around them, people or otherwise, can get them free.
Part Three: Orchestrated Oddity
The first episode establishes a clear theme and tone, which I would normally appreciate enough to stay interested, especially considering I’m not outright opposed to the direction it takes. I like the somber atmosphere and I think that dour nature of the events isn’t so overwrought as to be melodramatic. I still find myself wanting after this episode, though. There’s a reason I’ve found this series difficult to get into in the past.
I do have to say, the music is gorgeous. It’s sad and mournful, simple in its melody and often repetitive, but complex enough to suit many different scenes and add to the weight of the events. It paints a picture of what the characters should be feeling, but also by its mere presence, it demonstrates that they’re incapable of registering those feelings. It’s moody and light and I just love the excellent use of the high and low notes of the piano and strings. The main theme seems fairly basic, but that’s what makes it highly effective.
The cinematography is occasionally pretty, but less interesting, and likewise for the editing. Both are fine. I like the medium takes of the outdoor shots, and how the location of the town is somewhat ambiguous. You get the sense that the show is mainly set in the somewhere in the Midwest, but scenes vary from highly forested areas to the seaside to plains to remote desert mountains. The lack of orientation plays to the theme of the series. However, most of the shots are pretty standard and inform little beyond what the characters are saying or doing. It’s legible, but little else.
The only time the editing or cinematography really falters is when the show cuts to loud, disorienting flashbacks of traumatic events, which all of the main family seems to have experienced at some point or another. I get it, the show wants to foreshadow personal stories and the jarring cuts demonstrate these people are haunted by their flashbacks, but the placement and execution could be much better. My general attitude toward flashbacks is that they need to add context to the characters above all else, and given these flashbacks are so blurry and rapidly edited, you don’t get anything out of them you couldn’t get from the characters’ acting on its own.
I also don’t really like the occasionally wobbly camera that seems to have no narrative purpose, but that’s a common enough stylistic choice that I’d waste my breath complaining about it extensively.
Overall, I think the episode is competent, and there isn’t anything I can point out that makes it bad. However, there isn’t much to make me want to come back to it or dissect it shot-by-shot either. It has plenty of depth, but all of that depth is stretched over its surface. It doesn’t leave anything for the audience to discover on later viewings, as any ambiguity is simply there to confound or startle. Solid foreshadowing either needs to be subtle (which does not appear to be this series’ approach) or intriguing in its execution to make the audience want to see where it leads. Perhaps there are moments set up for later payoff, but I’m not especially interested in learning more about them. The episode feels complete, which is the last thing you want a pilot of a series to be. If there’s nothing pushing you to the next episode, why keep watching?
I think the clearest issue I have with this series can be seen in one of the first shots. To demonstrate the disappearances, the show has a woman place a wailing baby in a car seat and in the same shot focuses on her in the front seat as she finishes a phone call. The baby stops crying, and the camera, still in the same shot, pans back to reveal the baby is gone. Like most people, I really don’t like the sound of screaming babies and I find it excessive in films and television, but admittedly the shot is effective. I don’t have a gripe with the screaming or the general framing of the shot; I have a problem with the woman in the background.
See, there’s a lady walking across the parking lot who gets obscured by the mother’s head at one point. Once you notice the lady in the distance, it’s not much of a leap to realize the show can demonstrate the sudden disappearance of millions of people not only through the baby and the later shots of empty cars and shopping carts, but also with this woman. It’s such an easy thing – the mother’s head moves to block the woman, and when it’s moved out of the way, the woman has vanished. And yet, despite keeping the woman in the background, the show doesn’t do that. You can see her walk away behind the cars.
It’s a small thing, but little details like that are important to me. They flesh out the world and show the care taken in the crafting of a piece of film or television. They’re unnecessary, sure, and they won’t save a piece of crap on their own, but I do think the small details of a visual medium are necessary to elevate it from good to brilliant. It’s like an innovative shot or edit; you can be competent without going that extra mile, but the film will lack an inherent creativity. I’m a little worried that the rest of the series may be heading in that direction.