"The Leftovers" reveals the limits of "concept-driven" TV

HBO's new series represents the pinnacle of--and the problem with--TV shows that revolve around a single Big Idea

Published June 26, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Amy Brenneman in "The Leftovers"        (HBO/Paul Schiraldi)
Amy Brenneman in "The Leftovers" (HBO/Paul Schiraldi)

The words "concept-driven" tend to signal, somewhat paradoxically, that a real dearth of ideas is about to be passed off as groundbreaking. Because what in the world isn't concept-driven? Shows from "The Sopranos" to "I Want to Marry Harry" all begin with a concept – a mob boss in therapy! A date-a-fake-prince reality scam! But clearly, not all TV concepts are created equal.

And not all TV concepts – even really good ones – will hold up over the course of several seasons. TV producers and executives still recognize that, the way ratings are trending downward these days, without a flashy concept to wave around in viewers faces, they're dead in the water. Gone are the days when you could simply gather an attractive family around a living room set, feed them all snappy punch lines, and watch the big money roll in. Today, viewers must be intrigued. Cults, vampires, apocalyptic scenarios, grown men in dog suits – whatever it takes to win eyeballs. Sadly, though, most TV concepts can only drive for so long before they fall asleep at the wheel.

Certainly the trailers for HBO's "The Leftovers" represent the absolute pinnacle of concept-driven flash. Here we have Justin Theroux, a walking human mystery to those of us with a long-standing addiction to speculating pointlessly about all things Anistonian and Brangelinaian. Not only does Theroux have built-in intrigue, but he's also one of the only men who can rival Kyle Chandler in the realm of camera-friendly brooding and charismatic rage. Theroux has soulful eyes, and when that crazy tune (James Blake's "Retrograde") kicks in, with its noisy ambient sadness, the feeling of melancholy that's evoked rivals the opening credits of "Battlestar Galactica." "It's time," the mayor of Mapleton tells Theroux's character, Kevin Garvey. "Everybody's ready to feel better." "Nobody's ready to feel better," Garvey snaps back. "They're ready to fucking explode."

If there's a flavor profile for the TV drama that's considered eminently seductive these days, it's apocalyptic sadness mixed with sexy, seize-the-day nihilism blended with a few sprinkles of unfocused aggression. Tellingly, the screener DVDs of "The Leftovers" feature a photograph of Theroux punching a wall so hard he's making it crack. He looks bereft and enraged and his tattooed shoulder muscles speak of power and disdain for authority and they also whisper "Jen loves these meaty hot wings," to those of us shallow enough to hear it. The whole thing is pretty savvy and evocative and seriously cheesy.

Even so, "The Leftovers'" central concept is bulletproof. Two percent of the world's population has disappeared mysteriously. No one can explain it and no one can handle it. This is the kind of Big Idea that makes a stunning trailer and a great pilot episode. This is exactly how far a writer must go to get a TV show purchased, too. Throw in the fact that the show is created by Damon Lindelof ("Lost") and based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, and who isn't sold?

Let me be clear: I really wanted to love "The Leftovers." I like Theroux's sad eyes -- there's something weighty and convincing about him before he even speaks that reminds me of Terry O'Quinn from "Lost." I like the haunting image of cult members dressed in all white, chain-smoking, and following people around for no clear reason. But almost immediately, the show's big weakness becomes clear: There are no real characters here.

Who is Theroux's character, Kevin Garvey? He's the police chief and he's ready to fucking explode. That's the sum total of what we know about him after four episodes, barring one detail that would constitute a spoiler. What is this cult all about? They wear white and don't speak and they all smoke, and they seem at once passive and malevolent and extremely easy to distrust and dislike in the way that all groups of silent stalkers with strong convictions might be. Who is Theroux's daughter? She's a pretty teenager who keeps getting into situations that seem dangerous and bad for her, situations that make you think, "Whoa, things have really gone tits up on Planet Earth!" Who is Theroux's son? He's a young guy who's trying to do the right thing, but still, apparently, making some pretty Bad Choices.

And then, what? Then we get back story on a few people that amounts to "Then this crazy thing happened and then this unlikely thing occurred and then this very traumatic thing happened and it all messed him up big time! So now he's messed up, big time!" Sounds familiar, right? Yes, just like the last few seasons of "Lost," not only does "The Leftovers" favor concept and plot over character development and deeper themes and layers of meaning, but every possible trait you might wish to attribute to any given character is also reducible to some big dramatic plot twist from the past.

For example (this is invented, it's not part of the show and not a spoiler): This character is upset by recent events because his mother was run over by a semi-truck when he was just a boy. Or (also invented): This character is haunted because she got a mysterious phone call when she was young in which a voice said, "Follow the salamander!" and then she followed a salamander across the street and fell into a vat of quicksand, and just as she was starting to sink below her neck, a strange man dressed in black came out of the woods and pulled her out. That man was actually her brother! But they never got along. And now whenever she sees the sign of the salamander, she feels … haunted.

Everything in "The Leftovers" is plot-driven, in other words, even explorations of the characters themselves. Some viewers might say this constitutes good storytelling. And maybe it could boil down to good storytelling, if the storytelling didn't feel just like the examples above – random strings of events that someone dreamed up under the influence of a whole lot of caffeine in a writer's room somewhere, without much concern for how they all fit together or adhere to any overarching theme or incite contemplation of deeper strands of meaning. The events in question lack depth and soul. It's all too easy. Giving a character a disability or a cat with cancer or a sad back story that includes loved ones dying or getting severely injured (And it's all the character's fault! Always!) doesn't give that character soul.

As easy as it is to complain that "Mad Men" is just an elaborate thematic puzzle without adequate emotional impact, "The Leftovers" is the opposite. Aside from the basic idea that everyone is searching for meaning now that the existential rug has been pulled out from under them, and everyone is straining to make sense of the unexplainable, there are no coherent themes presented in each episode. The show's dialogue isn't all that imaginative. "It's gonna be OK." "How's it gonna be OK?" "There is hope." "It was a test." Even weighty conversations don't seem to signify anything or hint at overarching ideas or unfolding mysteries, so much as propel the plot forward without much flair.

The whole plot of "The Leftovers," in fact, despite being a plot-driven show, feels stagnant. Not only do all of the reasons for everything occur in the past, but none of it makes sense or follows from the facts on the ground. A bunch of people disappeared without a trace, so now… everyone is running wild and doing crazy self-destructive stuff? So it's just like the whole globe got sent to an elite prep school, in other words? No, some people are still trying, but desperation and despair reign supreme. All of this because an event no one could explain occurred three years ago? I'm not sure I buy that most people wouldn't have employed their usual modes of denial (Hello, global warming!) and moved on with their blindly optimistic humdrum lives by now.

I'd be happy to suspend my disbelief indefinitely if the slightest effort were made to convince viewers of why things might look so bleak at this particular moment. Unfortunately, the writers of the show don't seem invested in painting a broader picture so much as repeating the "People are really messed up over this!" message. Instead of some cohesive perspective on how culture shifted and why, we get the same conversations – "Do you know what happened?" "Of course not! No one knows! We may never find out!" – over and over again. When your central concept feels flat and repetitive after four episodes, you're in big trouble.

In other words, "The Leftovers" feels a little bit like that photo of Justin Theroux's tattooed back muscles. It's sexy and evocative and also kind of shallow and a tiny bit embarrassing.

Don't get me wrong. I'll keep searching for meaning in "The Leftovers" anyway. I'm curious how they're going to keep this concept driving through 10 episodes. And that's what worries me the most. Because the answer to "What happened?" and "Why did it happen?"— to the missing people, yes, but also to the people left behind -- is clearly "No one knows." And we may never find out.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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