There's an endless list of movies and TV dramas that have examined the question "What does it all mean?"
The new HBO drama The Leftovers takes this existential musing a step further by wondering "What if it doesn't mean anything?"
Not surprisingly, the answer, if it can be found at all, is unlikely to provide much comfort.
The Leftovers, which premières Sunday on HBO Canada, is a well-executed but intensely challenging series that lays the groundwork for its narrative by taking the intangibles that help us endure the human journey -- hope, trust, optimism, love, kindness and, above all, faith -- and wraps them up in a tightly compressed bundle before blowing them completely to smithereens.
And with that accomplished, The Leftovers gets down to the business of exploring how people carry on when everything they believed in has been stripped away.
The series, based on the like-titled 2011 novel by Election author Tom Perrotta (who is a writer and executive producer on this show), focuses on the lives of the inhabitants of Mapleton, N.Y., who, like the rest of Earth's population, are trying to make sense of what happened.
It has been three years since what has become known as "the sudden departure," an unexplained event on Oct. 14 in which roughly two per cent of the planet's population vanished without a trace. Husbands, wives, children, babies; police officers, criminals, celebrities, homeless people -- despite claims by some religious groups that this was the long-awaited Rapture, the fact that the list of disappeared includes saints and sinners makes it hard to interpret as anything holy or just.
In the opening episode, patrons in a Mapleton bar are watching TV as a newscast marking the anniversary of the departure runs through a roll call of famous folk who vanished: Shaquille O'Neal, Jennifer Lopez, Salman Rushdie, Condoleezza Rice, Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, Bonnie Raitt, Pope Benedict and others.
"The Pope, I get," says the bartender. "The Pope. But Gary (expletive) Busey? How does he make the cut?"
It's an interesting question, but it's based on the assumption that those who left were headed for someplace better.
And there's nothing in this story to support such an assumption. Instead, The Leftovers is fuelled by the gnawing despair, festering bitterness, overwhelming distrust and confusion that has infected the lives of all its characters in one way or another.
It's a gloomy tale that some will find too dark and sombre to stick with over a 10-episode run. But those willing to endure the anguish and ride it out will be offered a unique perspective on what makes humanity tick.
Central to the story is Mapleton's chief of police, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), who's just barely hanging on and has the unenviable job of maintaining order in a community where everyone is on the brink of losing it.
None of his family members "poofed" (the local slang for having disappeared), but he's still a single dad because his wife, Laurie (Amy Brenneman), left to join a bizarre, cult-ish group called the Guilty Remnant, whose outsider status is characterized by wearing white, refusing to speak and chain-smoking as a demonstration of their faith.
What they have "faith" in isn't exactly clear, but they actively recruit new members and protest mainstream religious and political activities by standing silently and staring at those taking part.
People in Mapleton hate them, and often lash out violently when they're around.
The series opener revolves around the mayor's plan to hold a ceremony and unveil a statue on what will now be called "Heroes' Day," and Chief Garvey's opposition to the event based on concerns that the Remnant will show up and violence will follow.
Tensions are escalated by the presence of a local minister, Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston), who has been compiling a catalogue of the terrible sins committed by some of those who disappeared. He has made it his mission to convince people that what happened on 10/14 was not an act of God.
In addition to helping to incite the inevitable riot, Jamison's efforts pile uncertainty onto uncertainty. That's really what The Leftovers is all about: the complete loss of anything to believe in, of anything to convince average people that there's a purpose to all of this.
It's a big topic to take on, and a dark path to expect viewers to follow. Many won't; those who do might find something rewarding in the bleak nothingness that's being explored.