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HBO’s ‘The Leftovers’ fascinates, depresses and confuses

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, June 27, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, June 27, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.

‘The Leftovers’

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Where: HBO

“The Leftovers” is the end of the world as we know it. Nobody feels fine.

HBO almost hits it out of the park again with its latest drama, based on a literary science fiction novel from Tom Perrotta. “The Leftovers” has an inherently depressing premise that fascinates in its first few hours. But the scattershot pacing and unhelpful flashbacks might make it vanish from your Sunday night DVR queue.

“We’re still here,” says Kevin Garvey, police chief of Mapleton, N.Y., the center of the show’s action. He repeats it to his kids, his friends at the bar, the local preacher, as if trying to convince himself, too: “We’re still here.”

Two of Perrotta’s other books, “Election” and “Little Children,” have been made into movies, but “The Leftovers” feels nothing like those biting suburban stories of angst. It’s the story of the aftermath of a worldwide disaster, but there are no zombies, no abandoned cities, no aliens. There is fallout, but not of the nuclear kind.

“The Leftovers” begins its tale three years after the events of Oct. 14, 2011, when millions of people vanished without warning. Now people call that day simply “the Fourteenth,” “the Sudden Departure” or simply “what happened,” even though no one knows exactly what that was, including the panel of scientists Congress appointed. The experts sum up their investigation by saying, “We don’t know.”

The Fourteenth selected its victims equally from all countries, races and religions. Pilots were whisked from cockpits at the same moment child rapists vanished from prison cells. When all the missing were counted, 2 percent of the Earth’s population was gone.

Celebrities vanished, too: No more Justin Bieber or Jennifer Lopez. People wondered, “The pope, I get. But Gary Busey?”

Some Christians, in particular, raged at the randomness of it all. One of every 50 people had blinked out of their Earthly existence – but those who remained didn’t make the cut. This was not the Rapture they’d been sold. Many of them decided it wasn’t the Rapture at all.

Whatever it was, it touched nearly everyone, even those whose families are still intact. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) didn’t lose his wife, daughter or son on the Fourteenth. But he’s losing them now: His teenage daughter is withdrawn and defiant. His son dropped out of college to work for a guy who calls himself, with a straight face, Holy Wayne. Garvey’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has gone even further afield and joined the Guilty Remnant.

Perhaps the most obnoxious of all the cult movements to crop up since the Fourteenth, the Guilty Remnant’s members don’t want the world to move on. They take a strict vow of silence, move away from their families and wear only white. They must smoke cigarettes if they’re in public.

When they do appear in public, they stalk potential recruits in silence, appearing in parking lots, outside restaurants or on the sidewalk across the street. Smoking, silent and waiting. One of their mottoes is “It Won’t Be Long Now.”

Mapleton’s Episcopal priest, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), preaches to nearly empty pews, and he can’t get through a sermon without getting punched in the face. He’s a leader in the Rapture Denial movement, which comforts its adherents by digging up dirt on the departed. Jamison blankets Mapleton with fliers that look like wanted posters: SHE SOLD DRUGS. HE GAMBLED AWAY HIS CHILDREN’S MONEY. It makes him unpopular, to say the least.

But the Rev. Jamison, portrayed with explosive desperation by Eccleston (“Doctor Who”), is trying to suffocate his private tragedy with his cruelty. He’s clinging to the concept of himself as a righteous man, which is what gets Chief Garvey through the lonely nights, too.

It’s really what everyone is trying to do, at least on the surface, except for the cult leaders. Ann Dowd, who creeped out “True Detective” fans earlier this year, is unsettling as the conniving local Guilty Remnant leader, and Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph) is a scary, manipulative sexual predator. The show might let us see his satisfying downfall – eventually, after we spend lots of time with partying teens, anguished widows and nihilistic hippies.

It’s not that “The Leftovers” isn’t great storytelling, because it is. It’s just befuddling, violent and sad – more and more all the time, with no satisfaction in sight. Theroux is flat-out fantastic and Emmy-worthy in this role, but as he struggles to hold the center in a town of walking wounded, you might be the one who gives up.

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