After all the psychic energy expended fretting about how Damon Lindelof’s last series, “Lost,” would end (a finish many found lacking), it’s perhaps understandable why he’d be drawn to “The Leftovers,” Tom Perrotta’s provocative book, where the big mystery involves the abrupt disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, and the fallout from that cataclysmic event. Those shock waves certainly provide fertile dramatic material, but the show somewhat unevenly mixes its universal theme — probing how people cope with grief and loss — with the particulars of its characters. What’s left is undoubtedly interesting; whether it’s worthy of rapturous praise is another matter.
The author of the books-turned-movies “Election” and “Little Children,” Perrotta’s concept here is constructed in an extremely clever way: The percentage of those who vanished (“the Sudden Departure,” it’s called) is enough to have touched virtually every life, without so devastating the fabric of society as to keep those who remain from muddling on.
Moreover, the inexplicable nature of what occurred — was it the Rapture? And if so, why weren’t all those who went away saintly? — creates a sense of gnawing unease in its inconclusiveness. One can only imagine what cable news would do with a story like that, and indeed, in terms of the craziness unleashed, it’s possible “The Leftovers” doesn’t go quite far enough.
In one sense, Perrotta’s conceit provides the means to explore grappling with the often-arbitrary nature of death, simultaneously painting on a vast canvas and a deeply personal one. Once you get past that, however — and the series begins, after a fleeting prologue, three years later — there’s a mundane quality to it, which includes the more banal aspects of family drama and characters of unequal appeal.
At the center of it all is the sheriff of the small town of Maplewood, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who is desperately trying to hold together what’s left of his family. That includes a teenage daughter (Margaret Qualley) and son (Chris Zylka) who is absent, having joined one of the cults that has sprung up in response to the Departure.
The most vivid of those groups is known as the Guilty Remnant, whose members have taken a vow of silence and wear all white (the austerity of George Lucas’ “THX 1138” comes to mind), seeking to force the rest of society to confront — or at least, not forget — what happened.
In the opening episodes, including the pilot written by Lindelof and Perrotta, and directed by Peter Berg, there’s certainly an eerie, unsettling quality to all this, including the little matter of stray dog packs who seem as out of sorts as the human population.
That said, it’s hard to get one’s arms around the series, which takes an early detour to focus on a minister (Christopher Eccleston) who is dealing with this test of faith by putting his own uncomfortable spin on what transpired.
Perrotta chose the right venue to tackle this latest project, since a series — and pay cable’s latitude — suits its complexities. That said, the struggles involving the sheriff and his acting-out daughter already feel a trifle tepid, and the Guilty Remnant’s silence (they write notes when compelled to communicate) is one of those fine-for-books ideas that proves confining onscreen.
Perhaps that’s why “The Leftovers,” despite a big-name cast that includes Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler, at times feels like less than the sum of its parts.
At least initially, the series is driven largely by its tone (Max Richter’s score is especially helpful in that regard), and it’s bound to make people think, which is by itself something of an accomplishment. Still, viewers will face a choice — probably toward the end of the first season — on whether that’s enough incentive to keep them from joining those 2%.