'The Leftovers' and its disturbingly clever PR move

Welcome package, complete with burner, Zippo and instructions.
Welcome package, complete with burner, Zippo and instructions.

So, to my fellow viewers of HBO’s “The Leftovers, can we share a collective shudder over the devastating, creepy, gut-wrenchingly sad story we’re all digging on? I mean, TV is supposed to be for pleasure right, but here I am, having weekly discussions with my husband on the nature of humanity in a post-apocalyptic society that doesn’t involve zombies.

Of course, like any good zombie show, the aftermath of any planet-altering incident is really where things get scary. But more on that and the clever/creepy publicity stunt in a sec.

First, a primer for non-viewers: “The Leftovers,” based on a book by Tom Perrotta, considers the aftermath of an unexplained event on Oct. 14, 20-anyyear, that causes 2 percent of the world’s population to vanish at once. No alien ships, no tidal wave, no virus can be blamed for it. These folks just up and vanished into thin air. Poof! Gone. Disappeared drivers’ cars crash into unsuspecting other drivers; babies evaporate from their carseats; children are orphaned in one fell swoop. One woman loses her husband and two kids.

We witness what happens post-Sudden Departure mostly in the small town of Mapleton. The folks left behind are reasonably shell-shocked to varying degrees. Some drink away their distress; some find religion; some drop out of society and join cults; some take the opportunity to capitalize on chaos and attempt to seize goods and power. Justin Theroux stars, so does Liv Tyler, blah, blah, blah.

Among the cult-ier types is a group called the Guilty Remant, whose members presume they didn’t make the cut for The Rapture, and therefore are “living reminders” of God’s great culling. Read: If you didn’t disappear, the logic goes, clearly you were too scumbaggy to get taken up into, presumably, heaven.

(Of course, a goodly number of babies and children – innocents — didn’t disappear, so for many other Leftovers, the supposition that only good and pure folks disappeared doesn’t hold up. Oh, and post-Departure, the local dogs pretty much went feral and headed for the hills in packs. Man’s best friend is outta here.)

United by their new self-identification as God’s rejects, the GR have opened safe houses for their brethren and organize ongoing public (and covert) campaigns to reinforce their message — at a remembrance rally for the departed, Heroes Day, the GR shows up bearing the message, “Stop wasting your breath,” with everyone holding one letter in the sentence apiece. They dress all in white, chain-smoke cigarettes (modern self-flagellation), and don’t speak. It’s part of the vows they take when they join the GR. These guys scratch out notes on legal pads and Sharpies that they apparently go through like Kleenex.

Naturally, most folks don’t really like the Guilty Remnant — constant reminders of the flawed human condition, plus the residual shock of the Departure aren’t high on their lists of Things to Remember. Society's differences of opinion with the GR have resulted in more than one incident of terrible violence against them.

Meanwhile, the GR roam around town stalking potential new members and/or keeping silent vigils on street corners, clad in their white garb, glowering at their fellow rejects. “Living reminders,” indeed.

The GR isn't the only cult to emerge from the Departure’s Leftovers, but that’s the stuff of another blog. More here about Holy Wayne (Paterson Joseph), a man with a strange healing hug that people pay big bucks to receive. Oddly, on HBO's "Leftovers" web page, there's precious little info about Wayne on it.

Obviously, the series raises fantastic questions about how humans perceive disaster — is it God’s vengeance? God’s reward? Simply random? Alien abduction? A crack that opened into an alternate universe? Our conditioning seems to dictate our response to such disasters — do we blame ourselves? Seek to control others? Wallow in guilt? Maintain order? — and when the fuse of trauma is lit, watch out for the byproducts of our internalization of it all.

Fascinating stuff, but here’s where HBO gets bonus points for brilliant marketing. I mean, it’s fabulous how often the network takes on amazing series (including “The Sopranos,” the godfather of great boutique television, and its most recent hit series “True Detective”), but then Team: Leftovers PR uses social media to get early supporters to stay onboard for what promises to be a bumpy, emotional ride.

So after I watched episode one and loved it, I tweeted out a thumbs up: “If a show as grim as #TheLeftovers can hook a person in one episode, you know it’s good. Signed, Hooked. #HBO,” I wrote. Someone favorited it, and retweeted the post. Cool, I thought.

A few days later, “The Leftovers’” official twitter account (TheLeftoversHBO) followed me. Double cool! I thought. (Followers are a tweep’s sugar rush.)

Using good Twitter etiquette, I tweet out a note to @TheLeftoversHBO to thank them for the follow, and say something pithy about the GR.

Shortly, they reply with, “Hello Marisa. We’ve been watching you. Please follow us so we may send you a Direct Message.”

Done and done, plus a retweet of that last note. (I’m good with the Twitter.) The direct message asks me for an email address, to which Team: Leftovers PR will send me yet another message. I pause. That’s a little creepy, I think, but I decide to keep going down this social-media rabbit hole and provide them with my office email address.

About five minutes later, I get an email from Team: Leftovers PR, this time requesting a mailing address to which they might send a special package. They want me to be a Watcher, you see, since I’ve suitably demonstrated an interest and opinion on “The Leftovers.” My instructions for Watcher-ing will be included in the package. Intrigued and just a little freaked out, I once again provide my at-work address. I don’t know what to expect: press materials? A T-shirt? KI pills? A pack of smokes? The email is signed by Tom Garvey, the son of our main character, Kevin Garvey Jr. (Theroux). Tom’s gone off the grid following Holy Wayne, a dangerous man with an agenda.

(Sidenote: I swear I didn’t delete the message but I canNOT find it in my mail stash = more creepy.)

Days later, the package arrives here at The Day. I cannot lie: I was a little scared to open it and felt a little guilty that someone had to schlep this box of who knows what up to me in the newsroom. With witnesses nearby, should the box turn out to be a vortex that’ll suck me into Mapleton, I open the box.

Within is more of the world’s greatest marketing materials, some of which are more than a little off-putting. A white plastic box contained the following: one static sticker emblazoned with the GR’s catch-phrase, “We Are Living Reminders”; one dossier about ME using info drawn from my Twitter profile; one postcard inscribed with instructions on how to be a useful Watcher (for example, use the hashtag #TheLeftovers in any posts I might make about the show); one Zippo lighter, engraved with the words “Don’t Forget Me,” a nod to both the GR’s smoking habit and a side-plot involving a mother who left her family to join the GR (her daughter gives her a Zippo as her own living reminder); and ONE BURNER CELL PHONE with which to receive messages throughout the series! (Another plot nod: one cult leader allocates a burner to an acolyte so he and another acolyte can avoid tracking.)

“If you don’t fulfill your duties as a Watcher,” the postcard reads, “we reserve the right to take it back at any time. So keep it charged, keep it close and await further instruction.” An initial message on the phone says there’s a $24 balance on the thing. Two other messages are from Holy Wayne, encouraging me to stay hopeful and to await further instructions. Another message tells me how to opt out of texts.

Meanwhile, I gotta remember how to use a flip-phone...

How’s THAT for audience development?

Should the vortex manifest itself, I’ll try and update this blog, but if you haven’t sampled “The Leftovers” yet, you might consider trying it on. If anything, it’s going out of its way to engage viewers through clever social media and aggressive publicity in new and exciting ways. I’ve never seen anything this well-crafted — it freaked me out, intrigued me all the more about the show, and it got me to write this blog in a fit of #getaloadofthis kudos for well-earned publicity.

Like “Mad Men” teaches us, it’s all about making the conversation happen, and the brains behind “The Leftovers” publicity team have done just that.

Oh, and #TheLeftovers. 

UPDATE: A recent text message on my burner offered a URL to follow, which brought me here. Who knew?

I’m on Twitter: @TheMDesk. And apparently I’m Watching you. I'll tweet out updates as they roll in.

A message from Holy Wayne on my burner.
A message from Holy Wayne on my burner.
Engraved Zippo and my 'dossier,' with details drawn from my Twitter profile.
Engraved Zippo and my "dossier," with details drawn from my Twitter profile.

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