“The Day After” stories fall into two categories, faith-based and secular. In the former a small group of people who missed the Rapture have one last chance to get the hell out of Dodge (or, more accurately, to dodge Hell) by defeating evil forces. In the latter, a small group of people have one last chance to defeat whatever destroyed everybody else (aliens, robots, weather, whatever). But they’re really the same story. To do something original, you have to do something different. Like the opposite.
So in HBO’s new series The Leftovers (Sunday, 10 PM ET), sometime now or not too far from now, two percent of the world’s population disappear, just like that. It’s not the Rapture, as far as theologians can tell. (In once scene, where images of famous people who disappeared are scrolling, someone remarks, “The Pope, I can understand. But Gary (effing) Busey?”) The scientists don’t have any answers, either; 140 million people just “went away”—people of all faiths, non-believers, people of all ethnicities and political affiliations, saints and sinners. But it’s not really about them.
It’s about the 98% of the human race still here who are not adjusting to whatever happened very well. No one knows why or how but after the shock wore off, when people realized what had happed, something changed. No one can put their finger on it but everybody feels it.
More than 100 people disappeared from the town of Mapleton. The police chief is an alcoholic and prone (maybe) to blackouts where he (maybe) goes on destructive rages. His wife has joined the GR (“Guilty Remnants”), a cult where no one ever speaks, everyone wears all white and they smoke cigarettes constantly, not because they enjoy smoking (so their motto says) but to remember. His son has dropped out of college and works as a go-fer for a mysterious man who can somehow make people feel better re their angst and his daughter has serious anger issues. And they are some of the better-adjusted people.
And that is the strength of The Leftovers. Civilization has not collapsed (2% of the US population is about 6.5 million people—roughly the population of Indiana or Tennessee) so it’s not as if there are not enough people to keep things going: the losses are personal rather than societal. On one level, you would think that those still here would be glad but instead some of them feel not so much left behind as left out—why didn’t they disappear instead of their child, their spouse, their lover? Are they being rewarded, or punished? Are they special or unimportant? The ambiguity has created something like “survivors guilt” but more profound. They are unsettled by what happened, and fearful of what may or may not happen next.
The show has all the production highs you’d come to expect from an HBO production; it’s probably the cheapest science fiction show ever—no spaceships or complex CGI but probably a considerable stunt budget, with people falling to their deaths and suddenly driverless cars crashing in the flashbacks. There is some humor but it is purely incidental; these people don’t smile a lot. You probably won’t either. But you will probably keep watching to see if you’d be one who’s gone or one who stayed.