When we think of irrational behavior, we naturally think of human beings first, of their ability to act based on belief rather than fact, to operate without regard to their own wellbeing or that of others they are charged with caring for or some other related behavioral anomaly. However, what if there were an irrationality in the laws of physics and of nature, which allowed two percent of the world’s population to suddenly vanish, with the speed of throwing a light switch? Babies from their carriers, drivers from their vehicles, shoppers pushing their carts, all of them gone without so much as a by-your-leave. No, this isn’t the Rapture. Scientists and logicians, tasked with finding some pattern, whether religious or otherwise in the disappearances, report to the US Congress that they can find NONE, to the disgust of at least one Congressman who would probably sooner accept some outlandish explanation than he would evidence for climate change. One hundred forty million people, living their lives one instant, utterly absent the next, with no logic or discernable causation for the occurrence. This is the premise behind the new HBO series, The Leftovers.
The microcosm meant to represent this global event is the fictional town of Mapleton, NY, three years after. Its chief of police, one Kevin Garvey, seems a decent sort, who attempts to capture a stray dog on the street only to see it shot dead by a local resident, who then flees the scene. His daughter Jill is somewhat less caring, throwing elbows and sticks about indiscriminately during field hockey practice and later attending a teen party/orgy which features random sex and drug use. Lucy Warburton, Mapleton’s mayor, insists on calling the third anniversary of the “Sudden Departure” a “Heroes’ Day,” a feeble attempt to put a positive spin on what otherwise would be “We Don’t Know What the Fuck Happened Day.” Three years removed and the residents of Mapleton are seemingly as rattled now as they were the day after.
That time has also seen the emergence of at least two cults. One unnamed with a messianic leader named “Wayne,” he and his followers live in a secured, secret compound, visited occasionally by people of influence and power, including a congressman, who needed to be “unburdened,” though of what is not specified. The other are the Guilty Remnants or GR, who dress in white, don’t speak, yet silently harass selected portions of Mapleton’s citizenry. Their mute demonstration on “Heroes’ Day,” displaying the message:
STOP WASTING YOUR BREATH!
foments a full-scale riot at the town park. However relaxed or bucolic Mapleton was before the disappearance, neither of those adjectives currently applies, nor does the future look particularly promising.
Leaving aside the fact that the “Sudden Departure” itself is about as likely as the realization of any other supernatural occurrence, biblical or otherwise, its intended purpose appears to be universalizing a “9/11” event, where the impact is so designed as to spare no one and all are wounded to one degree or another. While this story wraps its foundational slap-in-the-face in what amounts to an insoluble mystery, I have a serious problem with the presumption that the people of Mapleton or those of the rest of this planet would be so wounded and traumatized that the pallor of distress would remain largely unshaken even after a substantial passage of time. Certainly New York City and indeed the entire United States were deeply changed when those two planes plowed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania, and the results of that tragedy were not quick to recede or resolve. Still, resolve they did, and by 2004 we can hardly say that the product of the attack was so devastating that it left entire populations disabled to the point of near paralysis. Yet this is precisely what Leftovers author Tom Perrotta would have us believe: that such an incident would be so impactful and disabling as to permanently alter whole communities irrevocably.
I don’t buy it. Certainly, I’m human and can be hurt. I can also let go, both of the hurt and the conundrum behind its origin, given time. Would I be puzzled as to how so many people could vanish without a trace and what manner of agency could cause that? As a curious engineer, I’d be lying if I said no, yet at the same time, I would have no problem in relinquishing that question to someone more competent to explore and examine it, while attempting to repair and resume my own life. It’s not in me to believe that others are any less capable. My impression is that Mr. Perrotta wants to project a highly pessimistic attitude into the denizens of Mapleton, the better to sustain his unrealistic character and plot development.
Humankind is made of sterner stuff than that, or so I surmise, and while I may continue following The Leftovers, I shall do so with my skepticism well engaged.