There is no shortage of TV shows about the supernatural—there’s even a show called “Supernatural”—but there are relatively few truly interested in religion. On mainstream television, “religious,” and especially “Christian,” is usually a euphemism for well-behaved and mildly inspirational, as in shows like “Touched by an Angel” or “7th Heaven.” But six episodes into its first season, “The Leftovers,” the HBO drama, has proven itself to be the exception: It is a show whose central concerns are not just religious but theological. It asks the question, what would have to happen for us to take religion seriously again? And would the world be better off if we did?
The premise of “The Leftovers” is deceptively high-concept. One October 14—we never learn the year, but the show is clearly set in our present—2 percent of the world’s population abruptly vanishes. Evangelical Christianity, of course, has a name for such a phenomenon: It is the Rapture, when the saved are taken bodily up to Heaven, while the rest of us are left to fight it out here below. But while the Rapture has inspired a significant body of films and books—most notably the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins—the whole point of “The Leftovers” (based on a novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta) is that the Sudden Departure, as it is known, is not so theologically legible.
Indeed, one of the show’s central characters—a minister named Matt Jamison, brilliantly portrayed by Christopher Eccleston—has devoted his life to proving that the Departure is not the Rapture. He knows this because he has assembled a catalogue of all the crimes and sins committed by the Departed, which he insists on sharing with the world by handing out fliers on street corners. This mission naturally earns him a lot of hatred, including from his own sister, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), who has the grim distinction of having lost her husband and her two children in the Departure. When Matt informs Nora that her husband had been carrying on an affair with their children’s preschool teacher, his callousness jars, but to Matt such truth-telling is a religious imperative. For if the Departed are not saints, then they have not been raptured, and the End Times are not upon us. As a Christian minister, he believes it is essential to interpret events through the correct theological lens.
But Matt is fighting a rearguard action, for in the world of “The Leftovers,” the most important spiritual fact is the decline of the mainstream churches and the rise of a variety of cults. (The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, we learn, has added “Cults” to its name and portfolio.) In the series’ most powerful episode so far, we see Reverend Matt desperately trying to save his usually-empty church from bankruptcy; despite what seems to be the assistance of providence (including at the roulette table, where Matt wins a huge sum), he ends up losing the church. To make matters worse, its new owners are the Guilty Remnant, the most important of the post-Departure cults to spring up.
All religions, "The Leftovers" recognizes, are founded on scandal and start life as an outrage.
The Guilty Remnant is a genuinely creepy group: They all wear white, take a vow of silence, and smoke continuously, as a gesture of self-destruction and a comment on the transience of all things. But the power of the show’s treatment comes from the deep respect it pays to this cult’s motivations. All religions, "The Leftovers" recognizes, are founded on scandal and start life as an outrage. What could be more scandalous than Joseph Smith finding the Book of Mormon on buried golden plates, or God appearing on Mount Sinai to dictate the Law, or Jesus coming back from the dead? All of these things defy common sense and the order of nature, which is why they cannot be accommodated in our old ways of thinking. They demand a change in the way we think about and respond to reality.
The Guilty Remnant, then, can be seen as an appropriate response to the extreme outrage of the Sudden Departure. While the rest of the world goes on about its business as best it can—literally, in some cases: A company called Loved Ones sells life-size replicas of the Departed for burial—the few who take the Departure’s challenge to heart seem like a kind of spiritual aristocracy, like the early Apostles. And like the early Christians, this new religion, with its extreme nihilism and anti-social behavior, ends up coming into conflict with mainstream society. Brutality on television is hardly shocking any more, but “The Leftovers” has provided one of the most genuinely brutal things I can remember seeing—a scene in which a member of the Guilty Remnant is tied to a tree and stoned to death. The image reminds us of Biblical punishments and martyrdoms, and it is these religious resonances which make it so powerful. As we know from the history of religion, when everything is at stake, no act of violence seems excessive.
A different and subtler kind of brutality comes to the fore in the story of Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his ex-wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman). Kevin is a truly good man: As the police chief of Mapleton, the town where most of the show is set, it is his job to protect even the town’s outcasts, keep some semblance of order in a devastated world, and—not least—care for his daughter. These are the kinds of responsibilities that tie us to the world, and without people like Kevin the world would be a nightmare.
Yet “the world,” we are reminded, is a term of opprobrium in Christianity; Satan is “the prince of this world.” The radical, sublime act that many religions demand—Buddhism no less than Christianity—is absolute severance from this world, so that the soul can embrace the scandalous path to salvation. That is the path chosen by Laurie, who has abandoned her family and joined the Guilty Remnant. (Brenneman’s performance is all the more impressive for her not saying a single word in the series so far.) And the show’s religious sensibility is nowhere more evident than in its ability to keep the viewer’s sympathies at least partly on Laurie’s side. After all, there is no worse crime in TV-land than acting against the family, against “family values,” which are supposed to be Christian values.
But in shunning her family, isn’t Laurie simply doing what Jesus told his followers to do in the Gospels? “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” How do we react when this demand is put into practice, when someone in our own time and place makes the leap into the unknown that faith calls for? “The Leftovers” is trying to dramatize an answer to that question—an unlikely mission for a TV show, but a deeply compelling one.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.