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Disappearance of the 2 per cent: 'The Leftovers' probes its haunting aftermath in an HBO drama

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Not long ago, 2 per cent of the world's population vanished. Quietly, instantly, with no provocation.

This unfathomable loss continues to haunt all those left behind, including residents of the small New York town that serves as the setting for "The Leftovers," HBO's eerie new drama premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT.

The 10-episode series brushes over the seminal event, picking up the story as the third anniversary of the Sudden Departure nears. It finds the locals (played by a cast that includes Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Chris Eccleston, Carrie Coon, Liv Tyler and Michael Gaston) mired in grief, bewilderment and discord.

"They have to find a way to come together, but some people are going to be able to achieve that — and others aren't," says Damon Lindelof.

"The Leftovers" was co-created by Lindelof (of ABC's "Lost") and Tom Perrotta (who wrote the novel that inspired it). Earlier this week they joined an Associated Press reporter to discuss their new project.

Perrotta: "It's a different kind of apocalyptic story, because the physical world remains intact. It deals with the psychological adjustment to trauma. It follows what people make of this mysterious, traumatic event, which doesn't fit into either a scientific or religious framework."

Lindelof: "Some people just try to go back to the way things were before this thing happened. Other people say, 'This was a sign. I can't continue to operate the same way, now that this cosmic event has occurred.' The opportunity we had was to write a show with characters who, in wildly different ways, were trying to get on with their lives. This allows us to execute a genre show that doesn't feel like a genre show: The only piece of genre happened three years ago, leaving all the characters now to filter their world through the very strange prism it created."

Perrotta: "After all, how long can they discuss this thing that has no answers? No one has anything new to add to the conversation. In fact, the Guilty Remnants" — a nihilistic cult that wears spectral white, chain-smokes and never speaks — "has adopted a vow of silence in part because they feel there's nothing to say."

Lindelof: "This is not a meditation on grief, per se. But everybody on the show is suffering some kind of post-traumatic stress. Even if they're pretending not to still be affected, there's now a part of them where, if the friend you were just talking to has stepped around the corner out of sight, you're programmed to go, 'Oh, my God, it's just happened again!'"

Here in Mapleton, and around the world, the "leftovers" are dogged by the same awful unknowns about those who disappeared: What happened to them on that Oct. 14 upheaval? Where have they gone? And why them? What underlying common denominator could possibly link a local infant named Sam with Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Busey among the millions plucked from sight as if at random?

Don't come to "The Leftovers" expecting anyone to learn why. Including you.

Lindelof: "If you were to read Tom's book, within the first 50 pages it would become clear that he has no interest whatsoever in resolving the issue of the departure. That's not the story we're telling here, either."

And this stands as one of many differences between "The Leftovers" and "Lost," Lindelof's monumental thriller that kept viewers breathless for an explanation — which they finally got, sort of — of the fate of the passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 after its crash landing on a remote tropical island.

Lindelof: "On 'Lost,' right out of the gate, John Locke is saying, 'We were brought here for a reason. I'm going into the jungle and seek out the answers.' Not on this show."

Perrotta: "I still don't have the answers! In the world and in this community, there's a breaking down and there's a coming together, simultaneously, and we're trying to show both processes — and it gets pretty messy. But the audience, like the characters, is always operating inside the mystery. There's no getting outside of it."

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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