With the upcoming premiere of "The Leftovers,” HBO added its own twist on a growing television trend: Exploring themes with roots in the Bible.
The show has already gained some critical praise. Time called it "absolutely gorgeous," Vox applauded its "nuanced theology" and Flavor Wire's Pilot Viruet predicted it could become one of the best shows of 2014.
Yet some critics are keeping an eye on the direction "The Leftovers" will take its characters and their faith. While writing a positive initial review, Vox's Brandon Ambrosino is wary of the show becoming too religious.
"The religious — and, in my opinion, deeply biblical — influence of the narrative is still lurking throughout the show. In some moments, this influence is blatant, in other moments it's merely winked at," Ambrosino wrote.
But in a country where about 80 percent of the population identifies as Christian and 41 percent believe the rapture will occur by 2050, why can't a series dealing with biblically inspired plots delve deeper into the ideas of God and religion? Like SyFy's "Dominion" and ABC's "Resurrection," HBO's adaptation of Tom Perotta's 2011 novel takes concepts with biblical origins and explores them without directly acknowledging God or any one religion.
Patheos entertainment editor Rebecca Cusey says that it’s obvious the entertainment industry wants to appeal to a wide audience, but religious topics popping up in shows could also be a reaction to negative portrayals of faith in the past. Cusey calls it the “Footloose” theme.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, generally religious characters were negative. They were usually the hypocrites or even the villain. There was kind of a hostility toward faith and religion in general,” Cusey said. “Then it went dead silent and there just weren’t religious characters for the most part.”
The rise of antiheroes like Tony Soprano or Walter White on cable TV gave writers a chance to explore dark corridors or human nature rarely explored so deeply on the small screen. Cusey says shows like "The Leftovers," which premiered June 29, could be evidence of writers looking at faith with similar depth.
“It is odd to have elements from biblical stories and not have God be part of that,” Cusey said. “Art does explore some of the bigger mysteries of life and it’s hard to do that without talking about faith sometimes.”
The level of religious influence present in “The Leftovers” depends on who is asked. Perotta has repeatedly stated that the goal of the story is not to examine a Christian rapture ala "Left Behind" so much as it is to look at human nature. Yet even a secular approach to a religious theme, as Perotta wrote his book, can still speak to a spiritual or religious audience, Cusey said.
"The Leftovers" takes place three years after the rapture, during which 2 percent of the population inexplicably vanished. The show breaks down how the remaining 98 percent come to grips with its grief and loss. The series focuses on sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who struggles to hold the town of Mapleton, New York, and his family together after his wife joins a cult and his son goes to work for a holy man who claims to be able to relieve pain.
The moral ambiguity the show explores may wind up being the kind Christian or religious viewers could still find meaning in. Cusey said that many successful shows play into faith-driven values without addressing God or a specific religion.
“There are so many shows that really address issues that are so central to faith without specifically addressing faith,” Cusey said. “ ‘Breaking Bad’ is a prime example. It’s about sin. It’s about the slippery slope to becoming an evil person. That is sermon-quality material, but it’s not about God.”
Washington Post pop culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg said cable’s rise in antiheroes like Tony Soprano or Walter White is part of what sets “The Leftovers” apart whether God is addressed or not. In an article she wrote about the debut of the series, Rosenberg argued that the show was offering a kind of morality in a medium where morally bankrupt characters rule the roost.
"It's very common for cable dramas to portray themselves as morally sophisticated by having lead characters who range from transgressors to outright bad people," Rosenberg said. "This show makes a significant shift away from that. No one's mendacious, no one's a murderer who's also a family man."
Artistic middle ground
In exploring themes recast from the Bible in a broad way, Christian Century media columnist and Boone United Methodist Church pastor Jason Byassee says Hollywood finds its mark with a healthy middle ground.
“God is honored in telling a story beautifully. If you're a Hollywood executive, I'm sure you don't want to limit yourself to churchgoers," Byassee said. "Having a religious theme that's sort of a dog whistle that believers can hear but everyone else isn’t turned off by is a good approach."
Rosenberg agrees, saying it's important for audiences to remember that any TV show, whether the themes are religious or not, is still artistic interpretation.
"Pop culture is never going to look like a church ideal. We all need to take a breath here," Rosenberg said. "It's hard to do religion in mass culture without becoming a target or getting fact-checked to death."
That middle ground that shows like “The Leftovers” strikes at is something Cusey thinks some of the faith community should also explore.
“It’s detrimental to art and exploring these things that the idea of something that’s interesting to someone of faith is equated to something children could watch,” Cusey said. “Bible stories are very R-rated quite often. Human nature is R-rated. For the faith-based community to say, ‘We’re not going to watch anything that has the F-word in it,’ cuts out a lot of the human experience.”