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At first glance, HBO's new series The Leftovers looks like any traditional television drama, but it has more in common with The Walking Dead than it does The Good Wife.
Set three years after an event called the Departure, which took 2 percent of the world's population in an instant, the show depicts a brutal society of questionable authority and chaos. The Leftovers' hellscape is dressed up to resemble the real world, which helps set it apart from its competition.
Unlike AMC's zombie-stuff ratings juggernaut, The Leftovers proves the apocalypse can be horrifying without the monsters. The mystery of existence, we learn quickly, is spooky enough on its own.
An apocalypse we can understand
The Leftovers never shies away from portraying its version of the apocalypse as damaging, haunting and life-altering. Humanity has moved on from the Departure, but only in superficial terms. Fear, depression and vice seep into every corner of the town of Mapleton. The pilot portrays the residents as emotionally broken, including the show's protagonist, police chief Kevin Garvey, who should be keeping the peace but can barely keep his family together.
Fear, depression and vice seep into every corner of the town of Mapleton.
In both shows, the population is in a perpetual state of grief, but the loss of The Leftovers is much easier to empathize with than the thought of a friend or foe being transformed into a zombie. Perhaps because The Leftovers is just one giant metaphor for the anxieties we have about death: Why does it happen? Where do people go? Why not us?
What if you, and everyone you knew, were going through a version of survivor's guilt where you were jealous of those no longer with us?
Cruel, cruel worlds
The worlds of The Walking Dead and The Leftovers are not too distant from one another. Both take place after an apocalyptic event, revealing a world lacking in the hope humans turn to in tough times. In these worlds, there is no hope. And neither show seeks to explain its apocalypse — zombies exist or humans disappeared, now deal with it.
The question they do answer is a human one: What would happen to our society next?
The Walking Dead's characters are reflected by the show's walkers. It poses the question of whether those still living who have had to sacrifice their morals are really so different from the monsters they're fighting to keep at bay. There's a constant threat from this outside force, but humans have turned to violence and mistrust so quickly that your fellow men and women are no less dangerous and unpredictable. Survival is the name of the game for Rick Grimes and his fellow travelers in The Walking Dead.
The Leftovers doesn't ask its characters to become murderous, but their sense of right and wrong is challenged in the post-Departure world. If the biblical end times have happened, what else is there to live for? Kevin, his family and those around him have to contend with the struggle to be happy when it's so easy to succumb to bottomless depression.
Walkers have been traded in for existential despair, and that's an enemy you can't overcome with a well-placed ice pick through the eye.
If the biblical end times have happened, what else is there to live for?
The Guilty Remnant, a seemingly religious organization that is now the home of Kevin's wife, Laurie, plumbs the show's religious anxiety. Its members dress all in white, smoke constantly and never utter a word. Instead, they roam the town as a daily reminder of the Departure. The Remnant is a coping mechanism for those who cannot handle the burden of living and instead transfer their burden to others.
Others have simply given up, living their lives without any effort put toward building a better future. Of the show's main characters, Jill Garvey, Kevin's daughter, demonstrates this degradation of the human spirit. In one of the pilot's most nihilistic scenes, Jill, after playing a more adult game of spin the bottle, sits in bed crying next to a boy, choking him (as the game asked her to) while he masturbates.
She just wants to feel some emotion, as much of the world does, and without an outlet for more positive experiences, she turns to the only options she can find, no matter their depravity.
In The Leftovers, the world's population has become emotional zombies, shuffling through life hoping to find anything that will bring them some measure of feeling.
Is there any hope for the future?
Midway through The Leftovers' pilot, a character claims that dogs abandoned by the Departure have gone feral. The animals haven't tried to reason and make sense of the event — they just went insane. In his mind, mankind's path inevitably leads to this point. It's just taking them a little longer.
The pilot's final moments show the sort of course correction people are experiencing in the new world. Kevin witnesses a pack of rabid dogs maul a deer in the street, and a stranger begins shooting them down. Kevin, who earlier saw this man shoot a lone wild dog, now recognizes this new world requires a more ruthless moral compass. Sometimes a violent act can prevent more violence, and so Kevin unloads his pistol into the pack.
Everyone's moral code has had to take a step backward, and what that means moving forward is still unknown.
The Walking Dead offers some relief from the world's horrors in death. In The Leftovers, the promise of an afterlife is nonexistent, as that reward was already given to others. Without a reason to live a good life, for many, this post-Departure world descends into a much more grim and difficult state than any zombie virus could create. It's a world where religion is both confirmed and tossed away. God may be real, but for the people in the show, it feels like he or she has been removed from the equation.
Kevin isn't lucky enough to have a scapegoat like zombies on which to blame his troubles, or death to escape his plight. Without an external threat or the innate hope of a better future, each individual on the show is suddenly at war with themselves.
[Curious about The Leftovers but don't have access to HBO or an HBO Go login? The pilot is streaming for free on Yahoo in the U.S.!]