Sometimes it’s worth covering a television series or film not because it offers an edifying or even innocuous way to spend an hour, but because it reveals something noteworthy about the mindset of our culture. The Leftovers, a new supernatural drama on HBO, is just such a show.
It features frequent profanity and disturbing sex scenes involving teenage characters, and I by no means want to give the impression that I’m recommending it. Yet its sharp depiction of how humankind would likely react to a world in which, while there may still be a God, they suspect He’s no longer interested in them, is worthy of consideration.
As one would expect from a show created by screenwriter Damon Lindelof (who also brought audiences Lost) the first two episodes of The Leftovers set up plenty of suspenseful, paranormal mysteries. But they also establish loud and clear that, while the show concerns the lives of the survivors of a Rapture-like event, it isn’t meant to be an end-of-times thriller à la Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is something far quieter and more disquieting.
It may be exciting to imagine how the prophecies of Revelation will finally play out, but these are sheer conjectures in a fictional format. What we can make an accurate stab at is how bereft we would feel if we believed we’d been forsaken by God. The Leftovers depicts with uncomfortable authenticity the psychological toll it would take on a society to have demonstrable evidence that they’ve been left behind.
Some of the survivors—if that’s what they are—try to justify their continued presence on Earth, passing out fliers that argue the taken were no more deserving of Heavenly citizenship than those who remain. Others conduct odd surveys trying to discover some similar quality all of the raptured—which includes people as unalike as Condoleezza Rice, the pope, Shaquille O’Neal, and Gary Busey—might have shared.
Some idolize those who have gone, and some dismiss the unexplained disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population as a natural disaster, possibly related to global warming. Numerous cults of self-flagellation and mourning spring up overnight, including the GR (Guilty Remnant), ascetics who wear God’s rejection on their sleeves. The majority, however, carry on with nihilistic lifestyles that are only slightly enhanced by what has passed.
Though the series will no doubt go on to follow its plots about a small-town cop with prophetic dreams (Justin Theroux) and a cult leader who can hug away pain (Paterson Joseph) to all the wacky mystical places Lost did, on some subtextual level what it really seems interested in is parsing the foolishness the world calls wisdom. Within the “Sudden Departure,” as the characters come to call the event, are plenty of scenes that look like our regular, pre-Rapture lives today, and the resemblance isn’t pretty.
How do we handle growing worry that our teens are making immoral, self-destructive choices? How do we explain away violent or tragic events that take our loved ones from us? How do we overcome our own selfishness and self-destructive impulses that create distance between us and the ones we most need to be close to? The core issue, the show seems to insist, is not the degree of our disasters, but our reactions from a place of spiritual fallenness.
“You’re going to forget you ever felt burdened,” one cult member promises a new recruit. “Do you say that to everyone?” the recruit asks. “No,” the member answers. “To some I say abandoned.”
And this, I think, is the implicit honesty of The Leftovers. Even if it doesn’t recognize the gospel, it recognizes the problem the gospel solves. Without the love and grace inherent in a relationship with the Creator, this—burden and abandonment, sin and loneliness—is all that is ultimately left to the created.