Monday, July 14, 2014

The Optics of Despair

For a couple of weeks now, I have held off commenting on HBO's new TV drama series, The Leftovers (based on the novel of that name by Tom Perrotta, who is also one of the creators of the TV series). I have done so largely because I really haven't been sure yet what to make of it. I found the first episode difficult to follow. Other than the fact that 2% of the world's population had suddenly disappeared all on one October 14 three years earlier, there seemed to be an awful lot of background that was deliberately left unclear, that made it hard to follow the characters' situations in the first episode. Some of that backstory gets clearer in the second and third episodes, although many of the characters and their behavior remain still somewhat mysterious.

The story revolves around those left behind ("the leftovers") after a rapture-like event suddenly and inexplicably removes 2% of the world's population - including a random mix of townspeople in Mapleton, NY, where the show is set. (While rapture-like, the "departure" does not seem to correspond to or even resemble the classical concept of "rapture," since those who have "departed" were neither all particularly good nor all particularly bad. So far at least there is no plausible reason for their selection, if selection it was. The sheer randomness and seeming pointlessness of it all adds to the show's distinctive ambience.) 

The principal character (played quite convincingly by Justin Theroux) is Kevin Garvey, the local Chief of Police, who is struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in this abnormal and very depressed world. An aura of great sadness sits over the town and pervades the personal lives and relationships of virtually all of the characters, including Garvey and his family. The sadness is easy to comprehend, as is some of the bizarre behavior that ensues. While none of Garvey's immediate family disappeared on October 14, his life and family seem to have been completely destroyed by the event. His father (the former police chief) is institutionalized for apparent mental illness (presumably connected with the "departure"). His wife has abandoned him to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, who wear white, don't speak, chain smoke, and stalk other citizens of the town. (How this cult came to be has not yet been clarified, nor have we been given much insight into why she, who did not lose loved ones on October 14, decided to abandon her family to join the cult.) Kevin's son has dropped out of college and is out west somewhere involved with a weird and dangerous guru-like figure, "Holy Wayne." Kevin's high school daughter in still at home and is involved in ostensibly normal high school-ish misbehavior, which means she behaves in predictably dysfunctional ways, which seem that much more so given the overall atmosphere of despair.

Despair is the word I guess that comes most to my mind as I try to describe the characters and their lives and behavior. It reminds me a bit of P.D. James' 1992 dystopian novel The Children of Men (later made into a movie) about a world with no future, in which the human race has become sterile and stopped reproducing. That has not literally happened in The Leftovers. People presumably can still reproduce, but the past they have lost seems to have burdened their present so much that the future seems beyond any aspiration.

Last night's third episode develops the enigmatic character of Reverend Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), the local episcopal priest. In the first two episodes, he appears peripherally as something of jerk, whose main mission in life seems to be to publicize the faults and failings of the "departed." Such behavior predictably makes him unpopular and gets him into trouble. Thus, this episode begins with him being assaulted during a church service by someone who has taken offense at what he has been publishing about one of the "departed." But Rev. Matt has more troubles - personal and institutional - thanks to October 14. His wife, we discover, was injured that day and is unable to move or speak and is completely dependent on him for her care. His delicately portrayed loving care for and attention to his wife suddenly seem to make him a somewhat more attractive character. Likewise an earlier scene when a former member of his church secretly comes seeking baptism for his baby offers one of the few glimmers of hope so far in the story. Brief, but beautifully portrayed, the baptism scene seems so unexpectedly uplifting. The effect is fleetingly brief, however. Meanwhile, Matt's congregation has dwindled, and the church building itself is about to be foreclosed by the bank and sold. Much of the episode is the story of his bizarre (and almost successful) effort to save his church. The fact that in the end he fails (having come so close) is, I suppose, a parable about how really bad and depressing life and the world have become. As with the many other dysfunctions in the townspeople's lives, October 14 seems to have intensified the sorrows of ordinary life - from teen misbehavior to family breakdown to catastrophic accidents to the decline of religion. October 14 may have hastened the demise of his parish, but, as with so many other things in the story, it seems mainly to have highlighted significant secular trends that are already happening. (Perhaps that is the significance of Matt's crusade to expose the truth about the less than virtuous lives of so many of the "departed.")

Chief Garvey makes only one appearance in this episode. He remains the show's most attractive character, as is his seemingly quixotic effort to make his world work for him again. So far, the impression seems to be that the effort is hopeless.

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