Organized religion doesn't show up much in prestige television. Which is surprising, given the genre's tendency toward Big Existential Questions, and given how thoroughly Christianity is baked into how America thinks about itself, and given the ways the Christian Right and Mormonism and Scientology perpetually flit through our media landscape otherwise. It might not be as marketable as the blood and nudity that HBO's dramas often promise, but it's still a topic that seems to transfix us.
And, sure, religion has been there: Think Carmela and her creepy priest friend in the earlier Sopranos seasons, or Peggy's storyline with Colin Hanks' Father Gill way back in Mad Men's second season. But the latter show otherwise rarely discusses religion: a particularly conspicuous omission, given Don Draper's obsession with mortality. You got a few shots of crosses in Breaking Bad, but nobody ever really talked about God or sin or anything, which, you know, probably would've been germane? As far as Mormonism goes, there was HBO's Big Love, a lower-tier offering that's now almost totally forgotten. Ironically, some of our better-made sci-fi and fantasy shows deal with it more directly—a push and pull between an Old World polytheism and a new, threatening monotheism powered much of Battlestar Galactica, and might rearrange the world of Game of Thrones yet.
So yes, religion's always there, and can make for some stunning TV—the Born Again bit of Daniel's storyline in the woefully underrated Rectify springs to mind. The point is not that it's been absent, but that it's almost always been a second-string concern to mob life, or general cultural anxiety, or the twin recurring fascinations of prestige TV: fractured masculinity and the American Dream. It's odd that we still don't have a Great Show that uses religion as the engine itself.
It remains to be seen whether HBO's new The Leftovers will be one of those Great Shows. Having only seen the premiere, I love most of it, and I'm looking forward to seeing more. What does immediately stand out is that it markedly defines itself against a lot of the other stuff out there. It's unrelentingly bleak, which is nothing new, but its specific brand of bleakness is really unrelenting at the same time as being more intimate and small-scale than, say, the humanity-is-the-real-source-of-all-evil brutality of Game of Thrones.
The fact that it does have that intimacy itself is strange, because the premise of The Leftovers is that one October 14th, two percent of the world's population simply vanished, Rapture-style. You see a glimpse of the event in the show's opening scenes, and then an abrupt three-year jump forward, where we check in with all those left behind here on Earth. It's vaguely sci-fi, it's vaguely post-apocalyptic, and it's religious in a not-at-all vague way (key word: "Rapture-style").
For starters, there's Wayne, a British religious leader in Texas who's probably a fake, but has crazy enough eyes to make everyone believe him, and tells one of his followers that "The grace period's over," a sort of spiritual double-entendre, considering the maybe-sorta Rapture happened three years ago, but he thinks the true Fall is just around the corner. At an ill-fated Heroes Day parade in Mapleton, NY, to honor the departed on the event's third anniversary, Chris Eccleston's distraught preacher is trying to convince the attendees that it wasn't the real Rapture, handing out flyers exposing the sins of some of those who have disappeared. ("She beat her children. Does that sound like a good person to you?") Later that night, talking heads on a 24-hour news channel debate the Departure. "Everybody knows the holy word of God...." one begins, before the other cuts him off: "You're talking about the Bible. We're trying to have a secular conversation here."
That comment echoes an earlier conversation shown on another TV: Some political figure is arguing with the representative of a scientific commission, which studied the matter and concluded with a resounding "I don't know." This politician is convinced it must be the work of God, to which the scientist replies, "I'm fairly certain, sir, that God sat this one out."
The quote says a lot about the nature of The Leftovers so far. It has an inherently mystical and religiously derived catalyst, but the show itself never becomes supernatural. Religion is a major topic, with its cults and debates on scripture, but the show is not itself religious. At least for the time being, it seems that perennially apologetic showrunner Damon Lindelof wants to forget the fallout of Lost and go with a story that remains more grounded. Where other shows would explore what happened to those who disappeared—or might incorporate a host of otherworldly goings-on in the wake of an apocalyptic event—The Leftovers is instead committed to depicting the personal drama of normal people in the wake of the unexplainable.
The result is a really overwhelming and overwhelmed suburban drama. (I haven't read Tom Perrotta's novel that serves as the show's source material, but I've been told it has a far more satirical tone.) You see a strained, soon-to-be-married couple tailed by members of a silent, chain-smoking cult called the Guilty Remnant. You meet a man who's taken it upon himself to drive around town shooting all of the abandoned, now-feral dogs formerly belonging to the departed, which kind of makes him seem like your most aggressive neighbor, 10 times over. You watch nominal lead character Kevin Garvey (played by Justin Theroux) struggle with being a single father to a brooding teenage girl as much as he struggles with being his town's chief of police. You spend some time with that daughter, Jill, and get a glimpse of how normal high school tension and ambivalence boil over into yawning nothingness when you're more convinced than ever that it's all a waste of time.
Jill, in fact, provides the show's most striking and haunting sequence. (This is saying something, considering what happens at the pilot's end when Garvey runs into the dog-killer for the third time.) She goes to a high school party where they use an app to play a very modified version of Spin the Bottle. Her friend gets "Fuck" and goes off with Jill's crush. But others get "Burn," and apply a scalding fork to their own flesh. Jill herself gets "Choke," and accompanies a boy into the room of the host's younger sister; she was one of the departed, and the room remains childlike and untouched. Just as the iPhone told her to, Jill chokes the boy while he masturbates. She walks back through the house looking at the human wreckage unfolding around her, while shoegaze-from-the-gutter guitars throb in the air.
It's an unforgiving show, but a relatable one all the same. When Garvey meets Carrie Coon's Nora in a bar, they commiserate on where they were when it all happened: He lies, she doesn't. It's a conversation familiar to anyone who was around on 9/11, or when JFK got shot. Those crisis moments become immortal, shared experiences, the kind that ripple through a small town's skeleton and linger, changing its form. "We're still here," Garvey says to Nora, raising his beer. The Leftovers expands that out so it's something that the whole world feels, and the changes become less subtle. You arrive at a point where nihilism is a casual lingua franca.
Extreme religiosity and suburban ennui are two big slices of Americana to take on, and The Leftovers offers its own heightened, darkly ethereal vision without losing track of the very broken humanity at the core of its characters. Many reviewers have already commented on how this show feels like nothing else on TV, usually citing its glaring lack of a commercial hook. It's common to look at a period piece or a post-apocalyptic drama and dissect how its version of society is somehow an analysis of the Real World. And most of them are doing that. The thing that's different here is that this show has a mystical and spiritual presence, but still takes place in a very recognizable world.
Suburban parties… banal and infuriating talking heads… religion vs. science… this is all much realer and closer to home than the almost alternate universe of something like Breaking Bad. It's appropriate that 10/14 plays out as a global 9/11: Every time a character snaps here, you know where it's coming from in the story, but it also feels like it's representative of every real-world American tension of the last 15 years or so, from 9/11 to two unpopular wars to the Recession to a general lack of faith in our institutions. Speaking of the packs of feral dogs in Mapleton, one partygoer turns to Jill and says, "The same thing's gonna happen to us—it's just taking longer." The thud of statements like "I don't know" and "We're still here" and "God sat this one out" are all plenty haunting, but perhaps the worst chill comes from a question left unasked and unanswered: Sci-fi premise and all, just how different is this world from ours?
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