Imagine it. You’re in the midst of an ordinary day — at your job, at the mall, in your home, your car, an airplane — when 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes in an instant. No natural disaster. No terrorist attacks. No carnage. Just random empty spaces where people used to be — celebrities, political and religious leaders, your neighbor, your spouse, your child. And no one can explain it.
How would you adapt? Who might you become in the aftermath?
It’s the simple, stunning scenario at the heart of best-selling author Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel The Leftovers, which is now the backbone of HBO’s gripping new series of the same name, executive produced by Perrotta and Lost creator Damon Lindelof.
Lindelof, who created one of television’s most iconic studies in searching souls and mysterious realities with the long-running Lost, says he picked up Perrotta’s book on a whim and instantly saw a series take shape. “I remember feeling, about 60 or 70 pages into the book, this acute feeling that there’s no way the remaining pages are going to satisfy my desire to spend time in this world with these people,” he recalls. “It’s that idea of tasting a bite of someone’s food at a restaurant and feeling like, ‘I wish I had ordered that — and I wish I had ordered so much of that that I could eat it for days on end.’”
At the heart of both book and show is a cross section of people left behind after the so-called “Sudden Departure.” Some have formed a quasi-religious cult whose white-clad members embrace a steady diet of silence, secrets and cigarettes while shadowing their former friends and family members to prevent them from forgetting the lost. Some have formed a loose tribe of hippie-like vagabonds who intend to party away their own remaining days. Some see a buck to be made off of the world’s collective confusion. But most are desperately trying to get their lives back to some form of normal, even if they have no idea how that is supposed to look.
“One of the things that appealed to me about this rapture scenario wasn’t so much to explore a biblical prophecy coming true, but to explore what the world feels like when everyone is experiencing a sense of individual and collective grief, and a kind of dislocation,” says Perrotta, who conceived his tale in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “It looks superficially like the rapture, but it doesn’t make any theological sense — and it obviously doesn’t make any scientific sense. So even though in our society we’re used to a culture clash — religion versus science — this event challenges both of those frameworks and leaves a kind of vacuum. And in that vacuum comes groups like the Guilty Remnant.”
Chief of Police Kevin Garvey — powerfully played by writer/actor/director Justin Theroux — tends The Leftovers’ home base, the fictional hamlet of Mapleton. His wife abandoned her family in the wake of the departure, and the couple’s son quit college to a follow charismatic spiritual guru called Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), leaving Kevin and his introspective teenage daughter Jill (Andie MacDowell’s daughter Margaret Qualley in an impressive acting debut) alone in their grief and the family home. Garvey struggles mightily to make sense of his loss and the puzzling stillness of his daughter, while trying to contain a town filled with people still picking their way through the emotional aftermath of the Departure some three years later.
“Damon said something that I really liked about the character, which was that there is no place where he can go to get comfortable,” Theroux says. “He’s constantly looking for a place — he’s looking for warmth somewhere, through his daughter, through his ex-wife, through his job and the people he works with, and he’s also trying to hold the center as much as possible. It’s a bit like being at the center of a Tilt-a-Whirl and the centrifugal force of the way the town is moving. He can’t get his arms around it.”
Theroux says he, too, tapped into the emotions of 9/11 to help him embrace Mapleton’s myriad mindsets, and Garvey’s personal and professional burden.
“I was living in New York and to see two of those towers fall is about the most surreal experience you can ever have,” Theroux recalls. “It’s now part of the fabric of who we are; it’s been accepted and understood. But the thing that I remember most was that it felt like the rest of the country was kind of going crazy and demanding heads, but in New York — at least downtown — there was this incredible sense of grief and people embracing and hugging. In a weird way, we were under a bubble of just ‘What the @#$% was that?’ In this world, a lot of those questions have already been asked and now it’s what do you do with the feelings? How do you keep your own sense of center and moral code — and is there any point to having one? Could it happen again? Or should we all just go @#$%ing feral?”
Perrotta acknowledges that the novel’s fans might bemoan the decision to make Garvey Mapleton’s chief of police instead of its mayor, but he says that the morph makes sense to the broader story. “Both the mayor and the chief of police are involved in shaping and preserving the social order,” he explains. “And that’s really the central issue in The Leftovers: Is the social order going to fall apart in the wake of this event? The Guilty Remnant is trying to actively undermine it, and people like the mayor and chief of police are actively trying to preserve it.”
“Nihilism comes with the territory, and if you set a show in a world where there’s a real reason to be nihilistic and who knows if there’s going to be a tomorrow, it’s all the more intense — but it’s a matter of trying to present it in the real, most accessible emotional context as opposed to big sci-fi trappings,” says Lindelof of his and Perrotta’s commitment to grounding the story in humanity over grand-scale special effects. “Having spent the last decade of my life writing stuff on a much more massive, global scale where the stakes are always the fate of the world itself, it’s nice to just say, ‘Is this family going to sort it out? Are these people going to make it?’ That’s what I care about.”
The Leftovers premieres Sunday, June 29, at 10pm on HBO.
Photos: © HBO. Credit: Paul Schiraldi Photography.