The different ways in which people deal with grief was at the root of what is perhaps my all-time favorite season of television, the first season of Six Feet Under. Any fan of SFU will probably tell you that the series finale was, and may always be, the most emotionally wracking five minutes in television history, something I can write without an ounce of hyperbole. But it was the first season that made the ending possible by taking a hundred different maxims and extracting all the cliché out of them, making us appreciate what death meant without the torture of, “He’s in a better place now.”
“That better place” is the central mystery of The Leftovers, which premieres on Sunday on HBO. Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, Perrotta and Damon Lindelof bring the show to the small screen and amplify Six Feet Under’s meditation on grief. The Leftovers doesn’t deal with the grief of one loss, or even a few, but of millions. One day, two percent of the world’s population simply vanishes. It’s not enough to dismantle society and turn it into an apocalyptic dystopia, but it is enough to transform the planet into a dystopia of grief. Everyone knows someone who disappeared, and three years later — when most of the action in The Leftovers takes place — the sense of loss is still pervasive, overwhelming, and crippling. Even Gary Busey was taken from the planet, and that’s enough to depress anyone.
The Leftovers limits the scope of the grief to Mapleton, a small hamlet in New York, which is peopled with characters attempting to cope with their lives after the vanishing. These characters are just as lost as the viewers are about what caused millions of people to disappear, and just as confused about why certain people were selected and others were not. Don’t expect a quick or easy answer to these mysteries, however; in fact, unlike Lindelof’s other show, Lost, those big answers are almost beside the point because they are so unanswerable. To truly understand ‘why’ would mean to understand death, and that asks way too much of any television writer.
The point is in how these people manage to move on with their lives, the daily struggle to continue living with a cloud of uncertainty and loss hanging over them. I don’t want to get into who the characters are too much because to describe them would entail giving away much of the plot in the pilot, and the revelations in The Leftovers need to be experienced not read about.
Suffice to say, the incredible cast is lead by Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, and Christopher Eccleston, who represent the three main factions in Mapleton: Theroux is a father (and the chief of police) who is trying to keep a family fractured by loss together and keep the peace in a town destroyed by anger, sadness, and confusion; Brenneman is a member of the Guilty Remnant, a cult that has taken a vow of silence and whose motivations, at least initially, are almost as mysterious as the rapture itself. If, in fact, the Rapture is what it is. Christopher Eccleston’s minister character seems to think so, and as the religious representative, he cheerfully hands out fliers as though vindicated by God.
The question that most people will initially want answered is the Why, and it’s that mystery that gives us an entry point into the lives of the characters. As the show begins to dig into them, however, the mystery takes a backseat to the relationships. It’s there where The Leftovers truly shines. It’s a brilliant, but bleak show, and the pain of loss within the show can often feel piercing to those of us watching, and the grief may feel familiar to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved on.
I’m not sure yet what the ultimate point of The Leftovers is, except to make us feel the sadness and devastation the characters have to contend with, of which the series does an admirable job. But I trust that — in the end — the overall point of the series will not be dissimilar to that of Six Feet Under, only on a grander scale. That point was best illustrated by Nate Fisher in the final episode of the first season when a hysterical woman asked him, “Why do people die?” Nate paused briefly, and then offered the perfect response: “To make life important.”
That, to me, feels like the biggest statement a show can make.