How would the citizens of a small town react if 2% of their friends, relatives and neighbors vanished in a split second? That's the big question driving The Leftovers. Co-created by Tom Perrotta, author of the novel of the same name, and Lost creator/showrunner Damon Lindelof, HBO's dark new series kicks off with one quick minute devoted to the mass "Departure," then fast forwards three years to track how the spooked citizenry of Mapleton, New York, have chosen to deal with unfathomable tragedy.
The 10-episode show, which debuts June 29 on HBO, casts Justin Theroux as the Mapelton's burdened chief of police Kevin Garvey. His fractured family includes sullen teen daughter Jill, (Margaret Qualley); son Tom (Chris Zylka), a follower of sexually exploitive cult leader Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph); and estranged wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman). She belongs to the Guilty Remnant, a matriarchal commune whose members refuse to talk, dress in white, smoke cigarettes and walk around town silently shaming people who might want to forget the disaster and get on with their lives.
The series marks the return to serialized television for Lost co-creator Lindelof, who helped write big-scale movie spectacles Prometheus and World War Z after his zeitgeist-defining series concluded with a famously mystifying finale four years ago. "Tom's story felt unique and different and that's the standard we hold ourselves to for the show: it can't be weird for weird's sake," Lindelof says. "But I do think there's something cool and freeing about embracing a show that doesn't stop to explain itself and sort of wallows in its own ambiguity. Considering that the chief criticism of Lost was its lack of mystery resolution, when I read Tom's book, I was sort of like, 'I'll sign up for another round of that please.'"
During separate phone interviews with Co.Create, Perrotta and Lindelof describe how they use The Leftovers' quietly post-apocalyptic setting to examine all-American paranoia, religion, guilt, trauma, and community dysfunction.
Perrotta became fascinated with the idea of mass "Disappearance" while researching the Christian concept of The Rapture for his novel The Abstinence Teacher, about a small town sex education teacher who runs afoul of evangelical extremists. He says, "They talk about the 'End Days,' when good Christians get transported to Heaven, and things like "pre-millennial dispensationalism"—seven years of tribulation during which the forces of Jesus fight it out with forces of the anti-Christ.
"It's one of those things in our culture that some people take very seriously and some people think is ridiculous," Perrotta continues. "I didn't want to mock anyone or get into a polemical argument, but I decided to tweak it so that the Rapture that happens in the book and in the show is as confounding to Christians as it is to atheists."
Perrotta created desert-based cult leader Holy Wayne inspired in part by his research on religious tyrant Jim Jones of "Jonestown Massacre" infamy. Perrotta says, "I figured there'd be a lot of religious ferment and new forms of spirituality, so I had Jim Jones in the back of my mind. After I read his biography Raven, it became clear to me it would be wrong to simply call people like him mad men and to say the people who follow them are fools. So I took Holy Wayne seriously as a charismatic leader who's socially intuitive. And for some reason, sexual transgression goes hand in hand with having that kind of power over people."
Lindelof notes "Holy Wayne is another conduit by which to tell the story of the rise of prophets, whether they be false or not. In a post-Departure world, a really good hypnotist can convince others that they're communing with God because people are so desperate for anyone to tell them what they should do next."
The Holy Wayne sequences also offers respite from the Mapleton bubble, Lindelof says. "We're able to experience The Leftovers as a bit of a road movie that lets the series open up and show how the Departure has affected things in different places in the United States."
The most eerie reaction to the "Departure" comes from the Guilty Remnant contingent. Perrotta says, "To me, this is a religious community that focuses on self-denial similar to the Shakers or like nuns who live together. It's connected to the communitarian religious impulse."
Lindelof notes that the Remnant's vow of silence and plain uniforms add to the series' creep factor. "A lot of the credit goes to the actors, particularly Amy Brenneman. If I asked 100 people on the street to give me 10 adjectives describing Amy Brenneman, not one of them would say 'creepy,' That's what makes the Guilty Remnant so scary: you can take somebody like Amy Brenneman and watch her character fall victim to this group. You know, they can get your mom."
In his novel, Perrotta devoted a few lines to a feral dog that gets shot on somebody's front yard, but Lindelof expanded the animal violence in a big way. Perrotta says, "In the book the dog killings are by no means a central story, but when I talked to Damon about this chapter I cut where one of the characters goes into the woods to look for her dog, I could see he really perked up. Suddenly Damon was running with it and creating this character who's shooting dogs. That clearly connected with some primal part of Damon's imagination."
Lindelof notes, "There's not a lot of violence in Tom's book and I felt like that would be an ingredient that would make things feel more visceral."
Perrotta and Lindelof's initial script for The Leftovers pilot episode followed the novel in presenting the Kevin Garvey character as the mild-mannered mayor of Mapleton. HBO execs suggested a makeover. Perrotta explains, "One thing that happens when a novel gets made into a cable drama is that most of the memorable heroes of this golden age of TV have been quite dark. There was a feeling that this nice guy mayor wasn't going to fit that anti-hero mold."
Turning Garvey into a hot-tempered man of action immediately heightened the stakes, says Lindelof. "Before It felt like there was a lack of intensity in terms of what we could do with that character. Once we had Garvey dealing with riots and real issues with the Guilty Remnant, which his wife belongs to, then everything fell into place."
While he kept Perrotta's core concepts intact, Lindelof consistently looked for ways to crank up the action surrounding Mapleton's morose mind games. He says, "We wanted to be hyper-aware of how and when to use violence and what the emotional impact would be." For example, the Guilty Remnant appear more as a symbol than an action element catalyst in the novel. "I don't feel like this is a murder mystery show but the idea of the Guilty Remnant being able to operate with impunity, as they do in the book—I wondered if the people of this town would allow that to occur. And certainly (pilot director) Peter Berg is a very big proponent of this more violent, dangerous energy and that permeated the show."
Largely forgoing his mastery of sci-fi spectacle, Lindelof worked with Perrotta to focus on mundane details of small town life. "Living in the aftermath of this supernatural event, our characters keep asking 'Will this happen again? Am I living in a supernatural world?' Because if you just see a deer standing in the middle of the street in the suburb, there's nothing overtly supernatural about that; but in this world, maybe it is," says Lindelof. "You start to look for signs. Maybe your bagel disappearing in the toaster oven is much more unsettling in Mapleton then it would be in any other world."
The Leftovers follows characters who are haunted by an event that remains stubbornly unresolved. Will the series itself offer TV viewers a big payoff by season's end? Perrotta says, "I don't want to spoil anything except to say that for me, The Leftovers is about moving on without an answer. So to give an answer would undermine the whole story."
Lindelof adds, "Even now I don't know what the Departure is or what it's an emotional metaphor for. What I found interesting in Tom's book that I wanted to translate to the screen was the idea that you could kind of lull the audience into a sense of forgetting that this thing even happened, because it's just too stressful and frustrating for the characters, so lets kind of just get on with it. The Departure itself is sort of the elephant in the room. This idea of ambiguous loss that Tom introduced in the book felt very unique."