While there are many great shows out there, only a few of them have a perfect beginning—the kind that draws you in immediately and leaves you wanting more. In 25YL’s Perfect Pilots series, we will be looking at pilot episodes we think are flawless. This week Caemeron Crain looks at the pilot of The Leftovers. Got a pilot you think should make the list? Let us know!
Sam’s mother is doing laundry at a laundromat because their basement flooded. She’s on the phone and Sam is crying as she places him in the backseat of her car to prepare to leave. She looks back to shush and console him, and it works for a moment, but then he begins to wail yet again. Frustration washes across her face, but then the crying stops. She looks back and her baby is…gone.
And Max Richter’s score kicks in.
Out of the car and calling his name, she sees an unattended shopping cart crash into a car, setting off its alarm, and then a collision between vehicles in the middle of the nearby intersection. She continues to call for her son, increasingly falling into a mix of desperation and despair as he is nowhere to be found.
We’re less than three minutes into the first episode of The Leftovers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re crying even though you’ve yet to meet any of the main characters in the show. Part of what makes this opening so powerful is the way that it hits at a deeply human level, striking a universal chord in us through this vignette.
The premise of the show is that on October 14, 2011, two percent of the world’s population simply disappeared, and the rest of us were left to deal with that. This may not sound like a lot, percentage-wise, but it is enough that everyone is affected. And, beyond the fact that you may have lost a loved one to the Sudden Departure, its absurdity calls out for explanation even while none is available. What does one do in light of such an event? How does one continue to live? The fundamental mystery of what happened is less important. This isn’t a show about those who departed, but those who didn’t: the leftovers.
We meet our friend Kevin (Justin Theroux) as he is out for a run and comes upon a dog in the street. He approaches it kindly, saying, “I’m not going to hurt you,” when all of the sudden a shot rings out and the dog is dead. He turns to see Dean (Michael Gaston)—a man who he does not seem to know at this point—lower his rifle and get back into his truck, having just shot a dog dead in broad daylight. The dog has a collar. What is going on here?
We meet Laurie (Amy Brenneman) as she awakens in a room full of white and immediately lights a cigarette. This first time we see her is before we learn anything about the Guilty Remnant, yet this brief scene already makes us wonder what is going on. We see a number of people, all dressed in white, laying together on white mats on the floor of a room with white curtains, etc.
Cut to Jill (Margaret Qualley) at school with her friend Aimee (Emily Meade), who along with an unnamed high-school boy would seem to be the only students in class who do not participate in an optional prayer for the Departed as the third anniversary approaches. Indeed, Jill and the boy instead pantomime acts of suicide to one another, though hers in response to his seems to freak him out.
Cut to Tommy (Chris Zylka) picking up a congressman (who has apparently switched cars several times) in the dirt parking lot of a rundown roadside BBQ, taking a large amount of money from him, and making him put on a blindfold before they drive away to meet an as yet unnamed man.
Less than ten minutes into The Leftovers, we have thus met the core Garvey family that is the center of the show, but none have been named—nor their relation to one another made clear—and each has been shown in circumstances that add layers of mystery to the inaugural one of the Departure. At that point the show returns to the topic of the Departure, with a fake C-SPAN feed of a Senator Borge (Edward James Hyland) lambasting the Denziger Commission that had been set up to investigate the event for coming back with findings that amount to: “I don’t know.”
At a structural level, this is brilliant. It is hard to imagine anyone not being totally enrapt by the first ten minutes of this episode. If there are complaints, they surely must come later—and probably later than this episode as whole.
The pilot continues to explore various existential reactions to the Departure.
Jill and Aimee go to a party that shows the youth playing a (post)modern game of spin-the-bottle with a phone that tells them to burn, fuck, and choke each other. This seems emblematic of a nihilistic response: nothing matters, so you might as well choke me, and do you mind if I jerk off?
Tommy is caught up with Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), who promises to take your pain away. The whole thing feels a bit like a cult, as Wayne has a compound and young women at his disposal. He warns Tommy against his affection for Michelle (Annie Q.), for example, even as he implores him to protect her. What is going on here?
And then there is the Guilty Remnant.
The town of Mapleton wants to have their “Heroes Day” to remember those who were lost to the Departure. And they have Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) to do so, while around the margins Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston) calls the whole thing into question, distributing fliers detailing the misdeeds of some who departed. “They’re heroes because no one is going to come to a parade on ‘We Don’t Know What the Fuck Happened Day’,” as Mayor Warburton (Amanda Warren) puts it during a planning session with the police.
So, of course the GR show up to disturb the proceedings, as Kevin (who is Mapleton’s chief of police) knew they would. They want everyone to remember, but in a different way. And so a melee erupts.
We don’t get a lot on them in this first episode, but it’s clear that they dress in all white, smoke, don’t talk, and are interested in stirring things up. Why?
It is only when Kevin confronts them that we learn that Laurie is his wife. Jill takes the broken glass from around a picture of her mother (which Kevin smashed earlier), and Tommy submerges himself underwater, screaming, as the Max Richter music plays.
These are broken people.
Kevin encounters Dean again, after seeing a pack of dogs attack a deer. “These are not our dogs,” Dean says. Or are they? How strange is it for them to attack the deer? Is the explanation perhaps just that they have been abandoned, and/or perhaps freaked out by witnessing their owners depart? Or is something more nefarious going on? Are they a threat to humanity?
By the end of its first hour, The Leftovers takes the inaugural mystery of the Sudden Departure and layers it with further mysteries surrounding its characters, and this will be the driving force of the show.
It is not so much about the question of what happened on October 14th, but an exploration of the varying responses of those left in a world where this occurred. And, of course, though this metaphysical-type event is not something we have to grapple with in the real world, all of this plays allegorically with how we do have to deal with the inexplicable, and often sudden, fact of death.
If you haven’t seen The Leftovers, I recommend that you do so immediately. If you have, and would like to read more, I have previously written a series of character profiles that you might want to check out.
Either way, I can’t imagine a better pilot episode of any show, ever—except maybe Twin Peaks.