‘The Leftovers’ 1×2: ‘Dog Slayer, Bagel Savior’

For a show called The Leftovers this cult has pretty good pancakes! (HBO)

For a show called The Leftovers this cult has pretty good pancakes! (HBO)

If True Blood and The Leftovers were to have a baby, that child would be a prodigy of making terrible analogies to the modern condition. (Sort of like this one!) Or maybe the baby would be an ouroboros, some kind of self-referential monster, its metaphors only about the experience of watching it, the True Leftovers baby. Both shows are equally terrible at their respective jobs, which is holding up a fantastical mirror to everyday society in order to reflect the foibles of man and modern life, and what’s weird is that they are both terrible in almost the exact same way.

True Blood’s current running incarnation of ridiculousness is its The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street update, except everyone is sort of correct in this version because most of the people in Bon Temps are fucking monsters of one sort or another. But then maybe the real monsters are the regular humans with guns? Okay, that’s another Twilight Zone twist. So, wait, what are the guns a metaphor for? Oh…nothing, you say? The guns are a metaphor for guns. Okay then.

The Leftovers is a more sophisticated version of the same bullshit: vague, semi-mysteries that are more intriguing to the characters than the viewers, because we at least know they will never be resolved or revealed in any meaningful way. “‘So, what, is the tree supposed to symbolize, my old life or something?” asks Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbott, hacking away at bark with an axe after joining the white-robed cultists of the Guilty Remnants (GR). She’s talking to the ex-Mrs. Sheriff Garvey, her new non-speech therapist, who is taking her on a Thoreau-dian journey of pointless tasks to serve or not serve some higher purpose. (Jeez, at least in Wayne’s cult, he has magic hugs that take away pain! Ms. Garvey should have gone with her son. Well, maybe not this week.)

But seriously, what is any of this supposed to symbolize? It’s atmospheric and its got that Twin Peaks dream logic, but you know that even the most basic questions you have about the GR alone, like “Why smoking?” or “Why vow of silence?” or “Why is Errol Childress’s incestuous sister/wife from True Detective running this operation?” will never be addressed in any meaningful way. It’s because it’s weird, that’s why. In taking a magical realist element (in this case, the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population), it’s given a free pass on answering the basics about its premise, since it’s essentially an allegory about the different ways people deal with grief.  Take tonight’s opening scene, when federal agents WACO raided Magic Hugger Wayne’s compound–complete with “shoot the teens first, ask questions about the statutory rapist second” game plan. There are no parallels for the audience to draw here, because there was no context, and I doubt there will be a sufficient one coming. The show is just a series of random, horrible things happening with no explanation, ostensibly all to get to the show’s real thrust: people poorly processing tragic events.Or at least, that’s what we originally thought the show was about.

Do you want to know what The Leftovers is though, really? Because it’s not about pain, or suffering, or anger. It’s not about cults, or free speech or religious intolerance, or love, or mourning, or coping mechanisms. It’s not about bagels, stupid piano music, cutting down trees, or family. It’s not about deer or dogs that may or may not have been “our dogs” anymore.  It is not about any of those things. Forget the bestiary and the cross-show themes of dangerous stags. The entire first episode of The Leftovers may as well been titled “Misdirect.”

The Leftovers is a much simpler show, though no less creepy in concept: An insane sheriff is on the loose in Mapleton, and everyone in a position of power is covering up for him. Sheriff Garvey, as we witnessed last week, went on a drunk bender where he physically assaulted a GR member while screaming for his ex-wife, then murdered a pack of dogs in cold blood, with an unknown man, who may or may not be imaginary. He has flashbacks and nightmares and talks to animals and doesn’t seem to know the difference between being asleep and being away. He has a gun, and everyone in town thinks it’s fine, just fine, that he keeps it. As long as he PRETENDS to be normal, this very disturbed man will get Mapleton’s officials full support to continue keeping the peace. Right after he’s done destroying this toaster oven in the office because it made his bagel disappear. (He later finds it by disassembling the toaster like a meth-head in the middle of the night, but at least there it is, his two halves of a bagel, he’s found it.) His new working theory: everyone disappeared into a bagel machine. Sheriff Garvey knows the truth and will not hide his annoyance for being made to pretend he’s not a hallucinating psychopath with a family history of severe mental illness!

MZNJ5pqGarvey is just going to cry over these two burnt pieces of bagels, because that means that somewhere out there, the two percent of the bagels which disappeared three years ago are waiting for him to destroy the toaster of reality and find them.

The law being unchecked out here (probably because he keeps missing the meetings), Mayor Warburton needs to have a heart-to-heart when Garvey refuses to go to therapy. She needs him to stay away from the GR. Only until the creepily asexual Taran Killam/child psychiatrist clears him of being insane. Garvey is very upset that his sanity is being questioned re: anything. He just had a “rough night!” Haha, we all wish this sheriff was just an unhinged alcoholic. We’d be so relieved. “Ms. Mayor” “Lucy” (ugh, show some respect you pricks, #YesAllWomen) is actively encouraging Garvey to lie to this mental health worker, just so he can get on with his many duties that consist of stalking his ex, living in a waking nightmares, beating up pacifists, having horrifying flashbacks and conversations with people who may or may not exist.

Oh, and having the guns/keeping the peace.

“You are aware people like dogs?” asks Lucy.

“I like dogs,” whines Garvey.

“Then stop shooting them, because that’s what crazy people do.” Lucy says, walking away with the line of the night. Though she almost beat herself when she got to that crazy-ass vision board that every crazy law officer has these days, and says “Jesus I never should have told you to watch the fucking Wire.” (Haha, right. It was The Wire that’s the problem here.)

“They’re not our dogs,” mumbles Garvey, and Mayor Princess Lucy is like “What the fuck does that mean?” (It means he’s insane, lady!) Just in case Sheriff Dog Slayer’s mental state wasn’t being conveyed convincingly enough, he accuses Lucy of stealing it while visiting his also insane father in a mental institution. You know, his dad, the ex-police chief? The only one that seems totally cogent most of the time, but then starts yelling at invisible people?? MAYOR, PLEASE GET A CLUE! .

Evidence has been mounting that Warburton is dealing with a psychopath, and more disturbingly, a town that’s willing to tolerate him as their chief law enforcer. Searching for the truck with the strange dog-shooter from the previous week, Garvey’s deputy finds it–unregistered, without any warrants–in Garvey’s driveway. Keys on the dashboard, unlocked. In the back is the body of a dead dog in a black plastic bag, which the deputy offers to take away a couple blocks. “I didn’t kill that dog!” Garvey says, pretty angrily for a guy who has definitely killed a lot of dogs, without qualm, recently. “That’s not even my truck!”

The deputy is like “Sure you didn’t,” which means he believes Garvey has gone insane, and because of that, he’s willing to cover up the entire investigation–that Garvey called–for the pick-up  truck? If you believe the chief of police is going around animal murdering, losing track of time, perhaps developing an alter-ego and buying a vehicle, maybe your first instinct shouldn’t be “How do I make this look like it’s not happening, at all?”

Does Garvey even want to be sheriff?

WILL NO ONE ELSE RUN FOR SHERIFF OF THIS TOWN?

The imaginary dog shooter also stops by Garvey’s house, but wants/needs to be invited in like a vampire. He refuses to tell Garvey his name, so that is definitely what we call “a made-up person from your boo-boo brain.” But then Aimee  and Jill stop by and the imaginary guy gives them beer, so maybe he is a real person after all? Or a ghost? Fine.  When Garvey refuses to go for another round of dog shooting, so the man gives him his brand new truck. (Dead dog included) Noooo! I guess that might be suspicious, but everyone in town is too busy crouching down to find the sheriff’s lost marbles that they probably won’t notice.

Even Garvey’s dad, the guy in a looney bin, says his son needs to keep up the appearances of sanity. Um, but did DAD hear about the creepy dream where Aimee came on to him and led him in the woods where his Imaginary Friend was about to shoot his ex-wife? And then his feet were on fire? (Which actually, was a nice touch, because that is some dreamlike shit.) Except that when he wakes up and finds a fire burning in his neighbor’s yard, Garvey, like a dumb-ass, goes out in the snow without shoes and ends up burning his feet. JUST LIKE THE OLD GYPSY WOMAN PREDICTED. So now he’s not crazy, he’s just in communication with forces beyond our knowledge. I mean, I forgot we were talking about the guy who did Lost here; it’s definitely ghosts BUT ALSO probably there is some legit insanity as well.

The problem is The Leftovers wants to be an adult Donnie Darkothat way they wouldn’t have to resolve any of its gaping metaphysical plot holes and could focus on telling the story of its characters. In order to believe in that show, we have to believe that Garvey isn’t insane. He’s got some problems, yeah, but what tortured hero doesn’t? Maybe he’s hanging out with Jacob and Hurley in his spare time. But he’s definitely going to need to be misunderstood.

Except the writers must know how much better it would be if The Leftovers was a show to be taken at face value. I would totally watch a show where a crazy police chief terrorizes a town. Like Stephen King’s Desperation, and possibly that other Stephen King story where that writer thinks he’s being stalked by a guy who claims he’s been plagiarized, but then it turns out the guy was a figment of the writer’s imagination (sorry, spoiler). The movie starred Johnny Depp and John Turturro? You know the one. Not Rear Window, that was a much better movie. The Secret Window! Nailed it!

It doesn’t do anything for me to have this show be one of these flatulence-heavy existentialist mysteries, where nothing is revealed because there is nothing to reveal. I would, however, be very interested in watching a straightforward program about an insane law enforcement office is finally making peace with his bagels and beagles, respectively.

Otherwise yes, we’re watching contextual-less nonsense.