KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Television

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

by Stephanie Van Schilt , August 7, 20141 Comment

2014-07-03-theleftovers

 

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. Time, marketing, cast, network, genre and taste all factor into the decision making process. But it’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing and engaging enough to stick with for the long haul – or at least, another episode or two.

Long before it sunk into an unwieldy decline in later seasons, Lost premiered with a pilot that remains one of the most highly regarded in television history. Lost’s first episode managed to be cryptic and contained enough to carry audiences through to the next instalment. A highly entertaining pilot with a distilled sense of mystery and enigmatic yet well-developed characters, Lost coveted and converted curious viewers into addicted fans almost instantly.

Co-created by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, Lost had a strong start but became rather messy as the show’s writers lost control of its sprawling mythology. While Abrams is a formidable showbiz force responsible for writing and directing Lost’s pilot and the likes of Felicity and Alias (two shows which also had gripping first eps), Lindelof is most often referred to as the guy haunted by Lost’s eventual failings (and, you know, other writing credits like Prometheus).

None of this is news. But Lindelof’s most recent offering, The Leftovers, doesn’t seem to be news either. After debuting on HBO in June, The Leftovers is already halfway through its first season in the States, but you may not have even heard of it. Unlike, say, the cacophony which had built around True Detective by its fifth episode, this indicates where The Leftovers currently sits in the vociferous hubbub of the televisual stratosphere – it doesn’t really register.

Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (who serves as co-creator and executive producer on the show), The Leftovers introduces a world three-years after a global Rapture. Set in the fictional small town of Mapleton, The Leftovers explores how the local population are coping — or not coping — after 2% of the Earth’s population mysteriously disappeared into thin air.

It was the awesome trailer and list of creative talent on board that first piqued my interest in The Leftovers. Even Peter Berg, the man responsible for everyone’s favourite teen sports drama Friday Night Lights (another show with a killer opening episode), was listed as executive producer and director. However, given the apocalypse is the new (well, not so much new, but definitely ubiquitous) black, I approached the pilot wondering how this show was going to stand out from the rest and whether or not it was for me.

Justin Theroux is a total fox as the central character, Chief of Police Kevin Garvey (did someone say hot cop?), and the pilot was bleakly atmospheric. But while the soundtrack was banging, the music was used incongruously; where the likes of James Blake’s ‘Retrograde’ works in the trailer, it feels almost cool for cool’s sake in staid full-length montages.

With too much jammed into the single-setting – multiple cults, endless characters and types, glimpses of past and future – it strayed from the prestige drama feel it was trying to evoke, and instead recalled the overwrought melodrama of Under the Dome (right down to the terrible makeup).

Sadly, the pilot didn’t make a particularly eerie, exciting or lasting impact. I couldn’t determine whether my ambivalence came from the fact it was an average first episode, or because my expectations were too high. Regardless, rather than causing me to walk away questioning the pilot’s religiosity or existential quandaries, it seemed to me the greatest mystery was why the creators tried to jam so much into a single episode. Granted, this ambiguity is at the core of the show’s tone, but for an almost film length episode of television (at seventy-two minutes), its undergraduate-level complexities offered nothing solid for viewers to cling to – a signature fail for a pilot.

With Lost looming over this new venture, it was hard not to view the pilot episode of The Leftovers as an attempted apologia. This may be unfair but it’s also inevitable, particularly given the similar sense of doom and the tragic conceit, a familiar ensemble cast (the main character a male in an authoritative public role), and the use of a series of flashbacks as a narrative device. The Leftovers pilot felt so self-aware that it seemed self-conscious rather than assured.

The literal use of the shooting the dog trope – but with a ‘twist’ – was an obvious and blatant attempt to subvert that exhausted metaphor in order to say, ‘Hey guys, your ideas of morality don’t exist anymore everything is unstable in this world including who you think is good and bad and what we tell you is good and bad it’s crazy spooky who knows what’ll happen’. As Sonia Saraiya said on the AV Club, ‘I feel like in a 10th grade literature class… I would have had to write a paper or two on the topic’. And I get that, but perhaps the problem is that I — and other viewers — will very obviously get that.

Is it fair to judge a television show solely on its pilot episode? Or even its first season? Many shows have come back from shaky starts (see Parks and Recreation), so perhaps it is beneficial to wait for the collective consensus, and turn to a show retrospectively if and when you feel like it. It’s hard to say. Who knows what The Leftovers plans serve up for the rest of the season, but I’m not sure I’ll stick around to find out.*

*I have stuck around because I’m a sucker for TV and would love to talk about it with anyone because, except for one episode, my initial reservations remain.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.

ACO logo




  • jayme

    I actually love it, but the execution could absolutely use some work. Their downfall seems to be in trying to focus too much on the Garvey family whose stories are some of the least interesting we’ve seen. It seems to work best when it focuses on a single character and follows them around featuring small interactions with other cast members.
    It definitely feels like they’re purposely trying to make you feel something for these characters without giving you more than just the bare bones of what happened, but I do love that they focus so heavily on a family that seems to feel such a strong sense of loss without really having lost anyone close to them.
    There’s a lot more they could explore, without having to resort to stonings and transparent biblical allegories to try to compel you to care about these characters. But I won’t stop watching, because the concept is sooo interesting. But you’re right, even my HBO-praising American friends haven’t heard of it, and a lot of critics seem to be turning off because it’s too pretentious.

9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »