"Everybody's ready to feel better," says the mayor of a suburban Anytown that acts as a microcosm of a shattered world in HBO's existentially bleak The Leftovers (Sunday, 10/9c). And chances are you'll require your own pick-me-up after sampling the darkest and most problematic of a new wave of end-times summer series that includes TNT's gung-ho hit The Last Ship and FX's upcoming vampire-virus horror-show The Strain (July 13). With Leftovers, it's a morose case of Apocalypse Meh as civilization slowly unravels three years after a most unrapturous Rapture-like event that claims 2 percent of the Earth's population (roughly 140 million) in a seemingly random vanishing act.
Lost's Damon Lindelof, who knows from experience how hard it can be to try to explain the inexplicable, doesn't even attempt to provide answers this time, as he teams with novelist Tom Perrotta to adapt the latter's acclaimed novel into an uneven yet at times emotionally engrossing series that hasn't quite figured out an appropriate or clear tone to dramatize this mystifying meditation on loss, sustained grief and tested, twisted faith. (Showing a character reading Camus' The Stranger is a heavy-handed way to underscore the series' ambiguous themes.)
Justin Theroux is intensely affecting in the focal role of the town's embattled police chief, coping with a broken family, packs of metaphorical wild dogs (symbolizing the feral path humanity could easily take) and a cult, calling itself the Guilty Remnant, which consists of white-robed, silently smoking and lurking sentinels, whose provocative ever-presence is as murky in nature as the "Sudden Departure" itself. The most prominent of those members is Amy Brenneman, whose wordless expressions of defiant angst embody The Leftovers' suffocatingly downbeat style.
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LAWYERS IN HEAT: At least The Leftovers, however flawed and stubbornly opaque, is ambitious. CBS's sultry and sordid 13-part legal melodrama Reckless (Sunday, 9/8c) is merely witless, akin to a trashy and disposable beach read that should come with its own sunscreen — or perhaps a wet bar to distract us from the cheesy plotting and cardboard acting. Set and filmed in Charleston, S.C. (the show's greatest asset), Reckless stars Anna Wood, living up to her surname as colorless Yankee lawyer Jamie Sawyer, a courtroom tease who takes on the case of a female cop fired as a "bad influence" after being badly used and sexually abused by the chauvinistic police department. It's especially dispiriting to see Southland's Shawn Hatosy reverting to boorish stereotype as the P.D.'s violently arrogant "king dirtbag."
Of slightly more interest is Jamie's frequent adversary (with whom she continually flirts), local rising star Roy Rayder, played with enough courtly laid-back charm by Cam Gigandet that you'd almost believe his former father-in-law (the always agreeable Gregory Harrison) would put family matters aside to sponsor Roy's bid for City Attorney. This show's idea of local color is having a judge tell Roy, after Jamie's latest triumph, "She's got you bent over a stump with your pants down." And I know Jamie is supposed to be the hero, but after she asked with apparent sincerity, "Who's Perry Mason?" after one of her stunts, I can't say I'm really rooting for her.
SIR DEREK TIMES TWO: You want range? The great British actor Sir Derek Jacobi has been demonstrating his considerable chops since the world discovered him in the title role of I, Claudius nearly 40 years ago. Much of his celebrated career has been on stage — his Tony-winning performance in Much Ado About Nothing in repertory with Cyrano de Bergerac three decades ago remains a high point of my theatergoing life — and on TV, he charmed audiences as the crime-solving medieval monk Cadfael for four seasons in the '90s, and much more recently, endeared himself to a new generation as Alan, the seventysomething widower pursuing a second chance at love in the delightful PBS series Last Tango in Halifax, which begins a second season Sunday (8/7c, check tvguide.com listings). His chemistry with Anne Reid as Celia, the woman he let get away some 60 years ago, is both delicate and deep, warming the soul as they plot a quickie secret wedding in the aftermath of his alarming heart attack at the end of last season.
If you would like to see Jacobi doing something completely different — as in awful — stick around later on Sunday to watch him and another equally distinguished Sir, Ian McKellen, slumming and swapping bitchy insults as toxic Golden Gays in the tacky sitting-room sitcom Vicious (10:30/9:30c, check tvguide.com listings). The underproduced, groaningly written show presents these stellar veterans as exasperating drama queens Stuart (Jacobi) and Freddie (McKellen), who've lived together as poison-slinging partners for nearly 50 years. "I never know when I'm going too far — but I'm always glad when I do," mugs Freddie, a faded failed actor, after sending the more sensitive Stuart out of the room in a weepy fit over a snide remark about "the milky film that coats your cataracts." Stuart later gets his digs in as well: "Is that why you look 1,000? You're practically melting onto the rug!" (Italics intended to suggest the deafening pitch with which this lousy joke is shrieked.)
There are some giggles here and there as the campy curmudgeons endlessly joke about aging and dying, when they're not leering at Ash, their straight and often mortified hunk of an upstairs neighbor (Iwan Rheon in a role even less rewarding than Game of Thrones' Ramsay Snow), or welcoming into the flat their lecherous BFF Violet (Frances de la Tour, who gets off a pretty good Zac Efron joke in the pilot). But mostly, Vicious is a creepy, in style and attitude, retro serving of tea and hostility that's unworthy of the talents on board.
IN BRIEF: Longtime fans of HBO's True Blood will not want to miss the sensual first scene of Sunday's episode (9/8c) — which has little to do with the rest of the hour, not that it matters. ... A more satisfying supernatural smorgasbord, Showtime's Penny Dreadful (Sunday, 10/9c), wraps its first season (unavailable for preview by my deadline). In the wake of Vanessa's harrowing exorcism last week, the mystic (powerfully played by Eva Green) rejoins gunslinger Ethan, Dr. Frankenstein and Sir Malcolm in their quest to rescue Malcolm's daughter Mina from her dark master's evil clutches. ... Showtime's busy Sunday also includes the series finale of Californication (9:30/8:30c), while Nurse Jackie (9/8c), renewed for a seventh year, ends its season with Jackie at another crossroads clash between her medical career and life as an addict. ... Surely you didn't think retirement would keep Barbara Walters off TV. She's back on ABC's The View Friday to tout her 20/20 interview that night (10/9c) with Peter Rodger, the father of the Santa Barbara spree killer, and then appears on OWN's Oprah's Master Class Sunday (10/9c) to reflect on her unique career in TV news.