Grace Dent on TV: Cop drama The Leftovers is baffling but utterly absorbing

The show is spooky and poignant – but there are also hints that it might get very silly at some point

Click to follow

For anyone who watched the pilot episode of HBO’s The Leftovers – which began this week on Sky Atlantic – and worries I might spoil it by revealing its mystery, be not afraid.

I couldn’t if I tried. After 72 baffling, wilfully abstruse, yet utterly absorbing minutes, where we tracked several days in the life of Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (played by the often shirtless Justin Theroux), I have no theories on the sudden disappearance of 2 per cent of the world’s population.

They were here and then they weren’t. That’s all I can say. We joined the story exactly three years after the event: millions of human beings have vanished into thin air, leaving half-filled shopping trollies, empty baby buggies and warm yet vacant porch rockers. Strong echoes of New York 9/11 burble and whisper throughout the scenes. The Leftovers clearly refers in some sense to the emotionally broken loved ones who remain on earth, in a permanent state of guilt and befuddlement. The event – as far as we can tell – doesn’t feel like a terrorist plot, however.

Instead, this is something wholly inexplicable, perhaps spiritual or at least murkily otherworldly. What is more terrifying, we’re led to imagine, than never ever knowing? Or the thought that “it” might come back: for whatever has taken these people hasn’t spoken up, as of yet.

Blanket coverage: Amy Brenneman in ‘The Leftovers’

“This wasn’t the Rapture, this woman beat her children!” screamed Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), disrupting a rally to remember the missing masses. In his hands he clutched a pile of sinners’ pictures who were now being celebrated as missing heroes. Theroux’s stand-offs with Amanda Warren, playing the town’s mayor, over how to commemorate the three-year anniversary were priceless viewing.

Eccleston’s character, incidentally, had a good point about heaven probably not wanting to spirit away the child-beaters. There was a great moment where a TV news anchor tallied up which celebs had been taken. “Now, the Pope, I can understand, sure,” mused a watching bartender. “But Gary Busey? I just don’t get it.” Laughs were few and far between, but this was at least topically dry.

Thus, after one episode, my only certainty is that God himself hasn’t taken the missing millions. Answers were as rare as hen’s teeth in this opener, which mixed small-town Twin Peaks-style weirdness with the sad, stunned, mass-mourning vibe of Channel 4’s French afterlife mystery The Returned. The Leftovers is spooky and poignant – but there are also hints that it might get very silly at some point.

In fact, as I watched our hero, Garvey, mourn for his dead wife, who was not in fact dead, but had joined a silent, white linen-clad cult of compulsive smokers, it occurred to me that some of my favourite television has been morbid, unfathomable, beautifully filmed potential gubbins like The Leftovers. I say “potential” as there’s no guarantee with a show like this that one’s hours of earnest goggling will lead to much more in the final episode than “And then they all went off in a spaceship!” Or even a situation where the television studio green-lights a second series of the mystery halfway through the first, so the original deftly honed script is quickly re-jigged to last at least 17 more hours. Anyone who watched all 121 hours of tropical air-crash disaster epic Lost would be forgiven for suspecting that at times nobody – neither the writers nor the actors nor the viewers – had the faintest idea what was going on. It did not seem to impair anyone’s viewing.

Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, after a small beating (Paul Schiraldi)

There is a point in series three of Six Feet Under – to my mind some of the most beautifully formed television ever – where the plot nosedives to a point where the normally sane Nate buries his dead wife’s corpse, by himself, in the middle of the night, following her murder which no one seems very bothered about. Regardless, Six Feet Under satisfyingly ties itself by the close of season five.

If Paterson Joseph, playing The Leftovers’ unsettling “Holy Wayne”, is still, by episode six, not quite explaining what that den of supermodels and a congressman on the hill, surrounded by guards, are truly up to, I shall calmly suspend viewing and continue making my way for a second time through The Sopranos box set.

Incidentally, with 15 years’ distance, I now see that The Sopranos had a lot of gubbins, too. In fact, most episodes that centre around Christopher’s urge to act or manage musicians can be fast-forwarded. Also, Dr Jennifer Melfi is probably one of the least professional psychiatrists in the world. It’s not the done thing to torment your client into wanting to hit you at least twice every session. How easily pleased we were by HBO’s offerings in 1999. We want more bang for our subscription buck these days. For now, I’m gripped by Theroux’s desire to find the missing masses. If he’s nowhere near it by episode six, I’ll be disappearing too.