June 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

Review: HBO's eerie 'Leftovers' asks dark questions

Justin Theroux plays the chief of police in an Upstate New York town in 'Leftovers.' (Paul Schiraldi / HBO)

It happens in an instant, with no warning, no sound, no explanation.

Two percent of the human beings on earth disappear.

A crying baby is there, and then it isn’t. A car plows down the street, suddenly driverless. Families sitting down to dinner are left staring at empty seats.

One in 50 people vanishes. The missing are sinners and saints and all manner in between, no logic to be found in who has been taken, no clue where they might be.

That’s the set-up for HBO’s fascinating new series “The Leftovers,” based on the novel by Tom Perotta and developed for television by Perotta and “Lost” alum Damon Lindelof. And while the essence of Perotta’s eerie premise remains, the show almost immediately, and a bit too obviously, starts developing “Lost”-like quirks and characters.

Still, it’s hard not to get sucked into Perotta’s quasi-post-apocalyptic world. The book and the show focus in on one small town in upstate New York and the effects the “Rapture” has on people there. Taking place three years after the event, the town of Mapleton, and by reflection the rest of the world, is still in a state of shock.

That shock is seen mostly through the eyes of a family that was left, at least physically, intact. Dad Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the town’s chief of police, living at home with his troubled teen daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley).

But Kevin’s wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), has left to join Guilty Remnant, one of many cults that have sprouted in the wake of the event. Its adherents wear all white, live communally, smoke cigarettes as a religious ritual and refuse to speak, following an unclear belief system in which all who remain on Earth are apparently unworthy.

Kevin’s college-age son, Tom (Chris Zylka), meanwhile, is in Nevada working for another cult that worships the magical hugs — they take away all anxiety and guilt — of a man named Wayne (Paterson Joseph).

Yes, it’s a world of magical hugs where smoking has become a sacrament. Wild dogs abandoned by disappeared owners roam in packs, teens with no sense of future party the nights away and scientists have no answers to offer while zealots have too many. And no one knows what to make of those who vanished — are they martyrs, heroes, random pawns in some cosmic game, what?

“The Leftovers” has an abundance of talent and characters. Ann Dowd plays a leader of Guilty Remnant, Liv Tyler an engaged woman drifting in the cult’s direction. Christopher Eccleston is a preacher trying to debunk the saintliness of the missing. Carrie Coon plays a woman whose entire family vanished.

And then there’s shoots-wild-dogs guy (Michael Gaston), a odd question mark of a character who wasn’t in the book and seems like he wandered over from the last season of “Lost.” The fear with shoots-wild-dog guy and other quirks that show up is that they develop into Smoke Monster distractions that pull the focus away from the already plenty weird premise. Please don’t let this show get lost the way “Lost” did.

For now, though, “The Leftovers” is properly mesmerizing. The series lays out the basics over its first two episodes (directed by Peter Berg) and then begins playing with perspectives, teasing its stories this way and that.

Unsettling in every way, the show comes armed with endless question marks: What would we do? How could we cope? Could logic continue to function in a world so senseless?

It’s enough to make you want to have a cigarette.

'The Leftovers'


10 p.m. Sunday



Amy Brennerman, left, and Ann Dowd are members of a cult in 'The Leftovers. ... (Paul Schiraldi)