The first episode of The Leftovers is shot with the color palette and tonal qualities of a horror film. So if you’ve watched enough modern spookfests, you’ll likely spend the first hour of this series clutching the arms of your couch or your significant other wondering what horrible surprise is going to burst forth from the shadows.
But, like Damon Lindelof’s last successful TV venture Lost, the scares don’t come that easily. He’s more than happy to let you ride the wave of tension until the harrowing closing shot.
It’s partially because you already know about the horrible event that forms the core of this series: an apocalyptic/Rapture-like incident that made 2% of the Earth’s population vanish without a trace. And Lindelof and co-creator Tom Perrotta want to force you into the mindset of the people who didn’t get taken away. Like the residents of Mapleton, the town that this show focuses on, they want you wondering what happened and if it will happen again.
Three years after the fact, the people of this community are still shaken. Most act out in various ways. Police chief Kevin Garvey (a never-better Justin Theroux) tries to keep the peace both in the town and at his house, but spends every free moment drowning himself in alcohol and raging at everyone else around him; his daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley) turns inward but, like her high school friends, ramp up their disobedience in potentially dangerous ways.
Others, like Kevin’s wife Laurie (TV vet Amy Brenneman) and their son Tom (Chris Zylka) go seeking answers, the former in the arms of a strange cult who don’t speak out loud and chain-smoke when they’re not following around other Mapleton residents and staring them down from afar. The latter puts himself in the service of Wayne, a mysterious guru (played by Paterson Joseph, better known for British comedy fans as Mark’s strangely intense boss on Peep Show), shuttling people to their compound to seek some kind of solace.
What adds to the creepy feelings of this first episode is that almost nothing is explained. When a Congressman visits Wayne, he comes away smiling and lighter in spirit, but you have no idea why. And the motivations of the cult beyond shadowing the citizens of Mapleton remain unknown with the message “Stop Wasting Your Breath” on the day of a big parade honoring the victims of the disappearance. Likely, the layers will get peeled back more as the series goes on (the cult will likely reveal its secrets thanks to its newest member, a haunted woman played by Liv Tyler), but for right now, I relish in this mystery.
I also hope that Lindelof, Perrotta, and the rest of the production team ease up on the desperate feeling metaphors involving animals. A framing device of the episode is Kevin trying to help a stray dog before a man in a black truck shoots it. Towards the end, Kevin has a dream about hitting a moose with his car, waking up to find his kitchen looks like it has been torn apart by a wild animal. At the end, he finds the moose from his dream, and ostensibly the one that fucked up his house, just before it is attacked by a pack of rabid, wild dogs. The man with the black truck appears again and enlists Kevin in disposing of the dogs. The police chief does so, but with a look that reads as both thrilled and frightened. It is a powerful scene, but one that lays on the allegory a little too thick.
It is doing what a pilot episode is supposed to do, though: setting up the central themes and characters and leaving you hanging just enough to encourage you to come back for more. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly hungry to see how this plays out.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.