Last night marked the series premiere of HBO's The Leftovers, a heavily promoted new drama with an impressive lineage. Based on Tom Perrotta's bestseller and executive produced by Lost's Damon Lindeloff, the first episode was directed by Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg. The series stars Justin Theroux (he of Jennifer Aniston wedding rumor fame), Amy Brenneman, and Liv Tyler as suburbanites trying to cope after two percent of the world's population vanishes for no clear reason. What the Rapture-like event means for the main characters - protagonists would be too strong a word - is unclear, but for the audience it means very bleak Sunday nights.
The premiere introduced us to the Guilty Remnant, a bizarre cult whose members chain smoke ("not because they like [it], but to proclaim their faith") and take a vow of silence, along with Theroux's worried-looking police chief, and a group of curdled teenagers. If this sounds exciting, it isn't. The show is, more than anything, intriguing. And that's enough for the bigwigs at HBO. The show didn't need snappy dialogue or explosions, precisely because it's an HBO program. The network has done so much so well, that it can reasonably expect viewers to come back to a show that seems almost intentionally designed to alienate them.
The Leftovers premiere is just the latest in a series of HBO show debuts that asked more questions - many rhetorical or cosmic - than they answered. The first episode of True Detective was both gruesome and hard to follow. The first episode of Silicon Valley was written entirely in a dialect unfamiliar to anyone who doesn't live in Palo Alto. The first episode of Last Week Tonight was, well, extremely accessible. The exception proves the rule.
In the absence of advertisers, HBO isn't so feverishly beholden to the ratings game. Its executives know that the network is not going to lose subscribers over any one show, even if it doesn't strike an immediate chord. They can afford to go full-on dark and they can afford to go full-on slow. On the flipside, they can invest in a comedy like Girls (which could probably stand to incorporate a bit less levity) and not care when it fails to attract a large audience. It's all about prestige.
It remains to be seen whether The Leftovers will ultimately find its audience. But while we weren't exactly blown away by the premiere, chances are we'll continue tuning in. Theroux is good and we trust the network to give us something great. They (almost) always do.
Photos by Paul Schiraldi / HBO