Bummer of the summer: HBO's "The Leftovers"

Aficionados of horror fiction must occasionally deal with the inherent flaw of the genre: a horror film or book can succeed so well at being frightening, disturbing, or repulsive that it fails as entertainment.  The audience response is, “Wow, that sure was scary as hell, and incredibly unsettling… so why did I just watch it?  Why would anyone make something like that?”

A similar problem afflicts HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which is taking a break before its first-season finale, so potential new fans can use replay-on-demand to catch up with it over the holiday weekend.  The question is whether you’ll regret doing so, because this series is very good at what it does… and what it does is wallow in depression, misery, and grief.  It’s basically existential pornography.

It might also qualify as a horror story, because when it takes a break from being depressing, it’s usually to take a stab at being ominous and frightening.  The premise is that in October 2011, roughly two percent of the world’s population instantaneously vanished.  The series mostly follows the residents of a small town three years later, as they make their way through a world driven mad by grief and remorse.  Like “Lost,” with which it shares some creative DNA and writers, it’s a character-driven tale, with a much clearer sense that it will not be the tale of how the mystery of the sudden “Departure” was solved.  

The point is to vicariously experience a variety of disparate characters, and the society they inhabit, dealing with unspeakable pain, loneliness, and fear.  (The latter is nicely underplayed, because the characters rarely discuss it in so many words, but much of the social environment seems influenced by the lingering dread that another, perhaps even worse Departure could happen at any moment.  That would explain the emotional numbness and nihilism that grip so many of the younger characters.)

“The Leftovers” is good about following the rules of speculative fiction, relentlessly examining the effects of a single supernatural event upon an otherwise plausible representation of the modern world.  Organized religion is having a rough time, as people have trouble squaring traditional teachings with the inexplicable flashbulb horror of the Departure.  (One of the main characters, a compelling and carefully deployed Christopher Eccleston, is a priest who was initially on a mission to prove the Departure could not have been the Biblical Rapture, because the people who vanished were not virtuous souls who would have earned an express ticket to Heaven.  While grim, the show is not without humor, as a bit player made the same point more efficiently in the first episode by wondering how both the Pope and Gary Busey could have been plucked away by God.)  Weird apocalyptic cults have flourished, to the point where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has been given a Cult division to keep an eye on them… and is evidently eager to thin the herd of crazies by staging Branch Davidian-style crackdowns whenever it gets a chance.

It’s a superbly crafted show, a Swiss watch of character development and plot advancement, generating much dramatic tension by slowly filling in the relationships between the characters for the audience.  The abrupt beginning of the plot three years after the Departure, with virtually zero time spent introducing characters or setting the stage, makes for surprising revelations when we learn they knew each other before everything went crazy, or are related to one another.  Offhand comments foreshadow discoveries to come in later episodes, as the full extent of the characters’ interwoven lives is explored.  It’s clever how something that might seem like a relatively mundane background detail can become a source of dramatic tension when backstory is revealed slowly and organically.  When the ninth episode finally presents an extended flashback that shows what most of the main characters were doing at the moment the Departure occurred, it’s stunning, and almost surreal to see what they were like before the world changed.

But again, the mission executed by “The Leftovers” with such precision is a cosmic bummer that viewers might not want to sign up for.  Nearly every episode ends with people breaking down in tears, or lashing out at the world in rage.  It can be painful to watch, which brings us back to the conundrum of fiction that succeeds so well at dark purposes that it threatens to lose its entertainment value.  (The title sequence alone is profoundly creepy and depressing.)  HBO has renewed it for a second season, so the upcoming season-one finale will probably resemble the season one finale of “Lost” in significance: the moment at which the stage has been fully set, and the audience gets some idea of where the story will actually go.  If it can answer the “why am I watching this?” question in a sufficiently intriguing manner, “The Leftovers” will become an easier series to recommend.