Religious Undertones In “The Leftovers”

“The Leftovers,” HBO’s latest book adaptation and will-be “cult” hit, debuted the second episode of its premiere season Sunday night to an already eager fan base desperate to glean the facts omitted in episode one. The  series, based on a novel of the same name by Tom Perotta, takes place after a Rapture-like phenomenon beams mothers, sons, sisters and friends out of the small, quaint town of Mapleton located somewhere nondescript and tree-laden. We’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is the irreverent take on the kind of rapture Perrotta seems to have cornered the market on.

In an interview with the New York “Times” in 2011, when the book was just coming out and the HBO series was but a wee conceived idea in the brains of high-up executives, Perrotta made clear that his rapture, though evocative of the Christian one in name, was “like the agnostic’s apocalypse” rather than one of biblical proportions.

His “nuanced” version, which superseded the likes of the Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry B. Jenkins’s uber-Christian, semi-evangelical “Left Behind” series, though, only departs from religion in its lack of explanation for the disappearing act. Otherwise, the not-so-obvious religious references are abundant and clear.

Even Perrotta, in the same “Times” piece, copped to the influence of religion (despite his leaning idealism otherwise) in his work, saying, “I’ve been a little bit obsessed with religion, without being a religious person, for about a decade.”  The most obvious culmination of this obsession in the show are the various references to the Bible and Christianity.

Holy Wayne, the Messianic leader/figure of just one of the many cults that find their place in HBO’s post-apocalyptic-but-still-suburban landscape, quotes Acts 20:31 as he prophesies the coming of bad things. What’s more religious than the prophesying of the coming of bad times to gather congregants to your cause, right? A different religious zealot demonstrates for the Christian cause at the town’s gathering/parade(?) as religious zealots are wont to do.

More subtle (or “nuanced,” as Perrotta prefers) are the delicate belief systems (i.e. cults) that form in the years following the rapture-like sensation. And even more subtle are the nonbelievers that introduce the contrast that make it clear that a disbelief in God still indicates the presence of God (at least in HBO-land).

This disbelieffeatured in the disheartened residents of Mapleton: in the first episode’s dead-dog owner who asks, “Is that what it is?” when faced with her “loss;” in the burdened congressman; and in the town’s sheriff who ascertains that “ours is not the reason why” when asked for a reasonwill set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Religion will set the scene and as it often does, drama will follow.

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