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'The Leftovers' review: Baffling and provocative series premiere

Justin Theroux as Kevin in HBO's "The Leftovers"

Justin Theroux as Kevin in HBO's "The Leftovers" Episode 102, "Penguin One, Us Zero." Credit: Paul Schiraldi Photography

THE SHOW "The Leftovers"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Three years ago on Oct. 14, millions of people around the world suddenly vanished. Some think this is the Rapture -- the fundamental Christian precept foretold in Thessalonians in which some people will be swept up into God's arms. But most are baffled, and grieving.

The series -- which opens on the third anniversary of the vanishing in Mapleton, an upstate town which lost many citizens -- follows the tribulations of town chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his teen daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley) as they navigate their own loss. In town, there is a cult -- the so-called "GRs," or Guilty Remnants, who demand that people never forget. On the other side of the country, another cult is headed by the treacherous Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph). Meanwhile, there is a minister, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston, "Doctor Who"), whose sister Nora (Carrie Coon) suffered the worst loss of all: three children. The series is based on 2011's "The Leftovers," by Tom Perrotta, a producer here along with Damon Lindelof, of "Lost."

MY SAY People can't deal with voids any more than air can deal with vacuums. The minute they see an opening, they rush in to fill up the empty space -- with knowledge, understanding, empathy, superstition, hatred, fear or any number of other intellectual, emotional or religious constructs. In any event, that's the basic premise here, and if you buy that, then you can begin to accept what "The Leftovers" has to sell.

But it's a beginning point only. This provocative newcomer demands patience on the part of viewers. Will that ultimately be rewarded? I haven't the slightest idea.

At the outset you are dropped "in media res" into the action three years after a cataclysmic and inexplicable event. Millions of people have simply vanished. Those left behind have no idea why. There's no reason why viewers should either, except they're even more clueless, given that the "leftovers" have had at least three years to assimilate the catastrophe.

By necessity, "The Leftovers" is therefore cart-before-the-horse storytelling. Lots of stuff happens and little makes any sense except to those to whom it has happened. Why do (for example) the Guilty Remnants smoke? Why does Holy Wayne hug? Why does the Rev. Matthew get punched in the face? The narrative tends to be a process of accretion, whereby bits of information arrive piecemeal that slowly fill in the bigger picture, or (better word) puzzle. That's often the engaging part of this series. It can also contribute -- more than occasionally -- to an irresolute and aggravating viewing experience.

What's good is that Lindelof -- as "Lost" fans can attest -- does know how to parse out information in a way that forces you from one scene to the next. But especially good here are the uniformly superb performances -- wonderful little "Our Town" set pieces about average people going about their daily lives saddled with untenable grief. (And best of all, next week's episode with Eccleston.)

Meanwhile, it does bear pointing out that this isn't sci-fi. Don't expect to hear about alien abductions in the season finale, or about an army of zombie invaders returning to wreak havoc. "The Leftovers" is a sincere and earnest attempt to understand death, human loss, and the inexpressible mystery of the hereafter. That's a fascinating and admirable ambition -- just not always a watchable one.

BOTTOM LINE A baffling, beautiful, maddening, provocative puzzle (and do watch next week's episode).


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