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The New Apocalypse
'The Leftovers'

Note: As with all TV recaps, there may be some mild spoilers below for those who did not watch the episode. If you're only looking for a content advisory, skip to the end.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, Proposition 7)

Last summer I wrote about how the end of the world had come to the movies. Lo and behold: like a thief in the night, The Leftovers premiered on HBO yesterday. The apocalypse has arrived on TV.

Or has it? That's the thing about The Leftovers: this is not a "rapture" you'll recognize (and despite the similarities in the names, it's certainly not the Rapture we'll see Nic Cage emote about onscreen later this year with the Left Behind reboot).

Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

Justin Theroux in 'The Leftovers'

I've seen some writing about the show which proposes that this show's Rapture, which flouts the more common one, exemplifies our secular society. There might be something to that, but I think it's too simple of a reading. The Leftovers needs to be watched as a show about something else—something that doesn't tell a story drawn from religious narratives, but touches very deeply at the heart of far more religious questions.

Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel on which the show is based, joined forces with Lost creator Damon Lindelof to write this show. (Perrotta also penned the novels that formed the basis for Election and Little Children.) The premise is simple and familiar: three years ago, on October 14, about two percent of the world's population simply disappeared. Poof. Gone.

That disappearance would have most easily been explained as the Rapture, as outlined by some Christian denominations' interpretations of the Bible, in which the faithful are suddenly called away from the earth, leaving behind those who will now suffer through the Tribulation before Christ's return. And some in this world tried to explain it that way. But these disappearances are far more difficult to explain, with no logic underneath. Religious and faithful people are taken, or left. But irreligious are, too. Bad people disappear. Faithful remain. Some children disappear, but others remain without their parents.

If the Rapture in popular imagination comes with a "bang" (see the Left Behind trailer), this one is a whimper. They were there. And now they are not.

'The Leftovers'

'The Leftovers'

This all happens in the first few minutes of the pilot episode, and afterward, we jump ahead three years. The families are left grieving and everyone wants answers, but nobody can provide them. And so a number of cults have sprung up: there's the free-love hippies, of course, who will eat and drink and make merry till they die. Then there's a personality cult led by a man named Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), whose only distinguishing characteristic at present is his ability to quote the Bible and attract nubile young Asian women to his harem.

And there is a creepy shadowy cult called the "Guilty Remnant," who dress all in white, live in a commune, eat only for sustenance, take a vow of silence, and smoke many packs of cigarettes a day—to "proclaim" their faith, as a poster in their house reminds them.

The show centers on the suburban town of Mapleton, and specifically the Garvey family: Kevin (Justin Theroux), Mapleton's chief of police; his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman); their son Tom (Chris Zylka), who's joined the Holy Wayne cult; and their daughter Jill (Margaret Qualley), who's now a burned-out high school stoner with an anger problem and a promiscuous but sweet best friend (Emily Meade).

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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