The Leftovers: a perfectly grim but utterly compelling post-apocalypse drama

Justin Theroux’s troubled cop is at the centre of a town torn to pieces by the mysterious disappearance of 2% of the population

On an otherwise eventless Friday night – before the return of my beloved Real Housewives of both New York and Beverly Hills – I used to line up episodes of “semi-aspirational working girl” shows (see: Younger and The Bold Type) to watch somewhat secretly while my partner was away on tour. A few months ago I ran out of that particular glossy genre and finally succumbed to the show recommended to me so many times that it had dulled my interest. About halfway into the first episode I thought, “Oh, I should save this to watch together.” Five hours later, my neck was cricked, my wine bottle empty, a pizza eaten (delivered somewhere between episodes three and four), and I realised I’d have to watch half a season again when she returned. And I didn’t mind at all.

The Leftovers, as it turns out, is a perfectly grim show to watch during the current pandemic. Isolated together, my partner and I ripped right through three seasons (well, three and a half for me) as though a free trial was about to expire. Though it originally aired between 2014 and 2017 to great acclaim, until recently all I knew of it was through references in The Good Place courtesy of Maya Rudolph’s character, Instagram photos of Halloween costumes past, and memes featuring Justin Theroux jogging in a grey marle tracksuit (I’ll let you look that up yourself). And to think I’m now peddling it around town to anyone who will listen as though I’ve just woken up from a coma and discovered Mad Men or podcasts.

The show’s hook is a viewer’s delight and a character’s tragedy – what if, in a blink of an eye, 2% of the world’s population vanished? No warning, no nothing. It’s that premise that kicks off the pilot, the “sudden departure” of children, brothers, lovers, friends. Where to from there? In the small township of Mapleton, New York, it’s something akin to banal chaos. Three years after the “event”, the locals are trying to work out a way to grieve while the possibility that their loved ones may return lurks in the background. There are those who want to move on, those who don’t know how to let go, and those inspired to completely upend their lives for better or worse. Surprisingly, no one is making sourdough or kimchi.

Justin Theroux as police chief Kevin Garvey Jr in The Leftovers
Justin Theroux as police chief Kevin Garvey Jr in The Leftovers. Photograph: Paul Schiraldi/AP

At the centre of it all – news to him – is the chief of police, Kevin Garvey Jr (Theroux), a man plagued by nightmares (or are they?), abandoned by his wife (or was he?), picking up the broken pieces left behind by his mentally unwell father (or is he?). You get the picture (or do you?). His teenage kids (Margaret Qualley, Chris Zylka) are tearaways, plagued by existential crises of their own. And then there’s Nora (the brilliant Carrie Coon), a shadowy figure who seems simultaneously connected to everyone and no one, a loaded gun in her purse. Death is ever-present.

Coming up to the three-year anniversary of the disappearances, everyone’s on edge and no one more so than Kevin, who is particularly perturbed by a flourishing cult who have set up on the edge of town calling themselves the Guilty Remnant. Dressed in white and endlessly chain smoking, the rumpled members lead ascetic lives with a nihilistic edge, led by Patti (Ann Dowd) with shades of her Handmaid’s Tale character’s traits. The only member who seems to meet Patti’s hardened eye is Laurie (Amy Brenneman), who takes new convert Meg (Liv Tyler) under her wing. Mute by choice, they’re like a Vipassana group from hell.

Cult members in white holding signs that read 'stop wasting your breath'
A flourishing cult has set up on the edge of town. Photograph: AP

While business is booming for non-traditional spiritual communes (Holy Wayne is a character who believes he can cure malaise through hugs, and I’m pretty sure I’ve met him before at a music festival in the 90s), not so for organised religion, which is driving local minister Matt (Christopher Eccleston) to extreme measures. Add to that some oddly amiable twins, a tobaccy-chewin’, dog-obsessed hunter haunting Kevin and some wild desert hide-outs and you’ve got yourself … not even all of season one. It should be said that the first season actually does drag a little but you need, nay, must stick with it to reach the joys of the incomparable second and third seasons. And stick through the terrible country earworm of a theme song that’s introduced at the start of season two too.

The final two seasons – set in a Texas town called Miracle, and in Australia(!) respectively – are so wild, so engrossing, so beautiful and bleak that it would bring shame upon my family to even give a hint of what goes on aside from: more disappearances, an amusing visit to Melbourne’s Fed Square, sex kinks (and many of them), the 80s TV show Perfect Strangers, dangerous coping mechanisms, and a glimpse of the other side in a couple of brazenly bizarre episodes that are the closest thing to the heights of Twin Peaks that I can recall. There are moments in The Leftovers when you feel as if the writers’ room was truly given carte blanche to go to town, and they didn’t just show up but took the place apart and rebuilt it. I can’t say that for many shows, golden era or not.

The Leftovers is streaming in Australia on Foxtel, Apple and YouTube on demand

Contributor

Kate Jinx

The GuardianTramp

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