Go ahead and compare HBO's new drama The Leftovers to Lost. Just go on and get it out of you system.
On the surface, the two shows undoubtedly share some DNA. Both were co-created by Damon Lindelof. Both explore the struggle between science and faith. And both feature a large cast of characters trying to move on from a life-altering event. But the thing that sets the two shows apart is crucial: While Lost was derided by many for the answers it provided to the show's once-celebrated head-scratchers, The Leftovers has absolutely zero interest in explaining its central mystery.
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Based on Tom Perrotta's 2011 novel of the same name, The Leftovers kicks off with the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the Earth's population. The action then jumps ahead three years, with those left behind still grappling with the grief and confusion brought on by the inexplicable vanishing. "My hope is that [viewers] will understand that the heart of the show isn't about the question of, 'Where did those people go?'" Perrotta, who co-created and is executive-producing the TV show with Lindelof, tells TVGuide.com. "It's a question of, 'How do the people that are here continue with their lives?'"
Although Lindelof acknowledges the similarities of this project to his past work ("The things that turn me on turn me on. I think if I thought too much about why I was doing it, I would talk myself out of it," he says) he doesn't view the no-answers approach of The Leftovers as a correction or a response to the fan fury over Lost's ending. "The DNA of The Leftovers is the unapologetic presentation of... a story about living in unresolved mystery and the frustrations therein," Lindelof says. "I almost think it would be a betrayal to Tom's book to say, 'Oh, we're going to answer this or that.' All the characters in the show are having the same experience as the audience is."
And how each of the characters in the show's Mapleton, N.J. setting react to that experience is significant. The show's central character is Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), the police chief whose family has fallen apart and who begins to fear that that he, like his father before him, might be losing his mind. "He's just trying to keep the lid on an emotional pressure cooker for himself," Theroux says. "He's trying to do the practical things in his life: wake up, go to work, take care of his daughter and do his job. Those are all, in a sense, escapes from having to really confront what the actual event was."
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Adds Perrotta: "One of the things the show is definitely exploring is whether it's possible to live in this world in a state of denial or in avoidance of these big questions. There's a sense that it costs a lot to continue to function without coming to terms with this thing that happened, without being able to grieve, without taking inventory of your life and deciding if you need to make some changes. He's just trying to forge ahead, and it's really difficult."
But not everyone is satisfied not looking for answers —or at least some sense of meaning — in this new world. Kevin's son Tom (Chris Zylka) becomes a follower of Holy Wayne (Patterson Joseph), a man who claims he can take away pain by hugging people. Rev. Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), a man of God, begins a crusade to prove the event was not The Rapture because of all the bad people who also disappeared.
Then there's a large group of others, including Amy Brenneman's Laurie, who have joined the Guilty Remnant, a cult of silent, all white-wearing people who smoke cigarettes and creepily recruit other townsfolk, including Liv Tyler's Meg. "The people in the Guilty Remnant are saying, 'We're separating ourselves from human connection because the Sudden Departure has revealed that to be an impossible thing. In a world where anyone can disappear at any moment, there's just no sense in being connected,'" Perotta says.
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If it all sounds a little bleak, that's because it is. "I did find writing the book to be a somewhat heavy experience, and I think the show is even heavier," Perrotta says. "To actually watch people in the throes of grief and bewilderment can be tough. ... [But] there are hopeful elements... about the characters' ability to make tentative steps into the future and embrace something new. To me, the hope in the show is less about some large-scale understanding of the event or a fight against evil, as it is about individual characters finding connection to other people and maybe figuring a way to rebuild their lives in a way that points to the future."
But Perrotta doesn't necessarily think the show's grim tone will be a barrier to entry for viewing audiences. "I almost question the premise of that criticism that there's such a thing as too dark," he says. "I've been watching The Walking Dead for years and that show is incredibly dark week after week, and yet people keep coming back for more. That has zombies and more genre satisfaction, so it won't be as easy for us to find that loyal audience. It is a challenge for us that we're trying to tell a post-apocalyptic story that is also a realistic, small-town story. But there's nothing quite like it, which to me is what makes it exciting."
Despite the supernatural premise at the center of the show, the realism of the story is of utmost importance to Perrotta. Even though there's the afore-mentioned hug-healer and a guy named Dean (Michael Gaston), who goes around shooting dogs and who may or may not be a figment of Kevin's imagination, Perrotta stresses that this show very much takes place in a grounded universe.
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"I'm much more interested in delineating this new reality than introducing supernatural elements," Perrotta says. "A charismatic religious figure who people believe has the power to heal? Those people exist in our world right now. I have no problem saying that in a world that has come undone like this, there might be more of those figures and that people might grant them more power. I'm really comfortable with those sort of borderline issues. Beyond the Sudden Departure itself, which feels supernatural because there's no scientific explanation, we're trying to not go over the top to the place where anything can happen in this world."
In other words, don't expect to see any Smoke Monsters or tropical island polar bears. But even though this show is clearly different fromLost, Perrotta is prepared for audiences not to heed his and Lindelof's warnings. "People are going to bring their expectations and their narrative demands, and sometimes some of those people are going to be frustrated," Perrotta says. "I think the show bends over backwards to say, these characters are not actually expecting or hoping to find out what happened. They're resigned to the fact that it happened and that they can't understand it. To me, the show is about the way we make meaning when we don't have answers. ... People want reassurance, they want answers, and the show is about what happens when we don't get them. That frustration is so much a part of the story that I can't resent anyone in the audience for feeling it."
And unlike a Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, viewers shouldn't necessarily look to Perrotta's novel for answers either. "It may be that the show ends up in a very different place than the book as it continues," he says. "Even looking at it now, I would say the book was very interested in looking at how this community manages to hang together and the show is much more interested in what's pulling the town apart. It's a slight shift of emphasis, but it has a lot of consequence."
The Leftovers premieres Sunday at 10/9c on HBO.