Carlton Cuse on the Appeals of Death in A&E's 'The Returned'

The prolific showrunner talks with THR about juggling four shows and how his three adaptations compare.
Courtesy of A&E

Death is never easy. The loss of loved ones, no matter the circumstance, is always tragic. But what if those we lost returned years later, as if no time had passed. That is the premise of A&E’s The Returned, from co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Raelle Tucker.

Adapted from the French series Les Revenants, the drama takes place in a small mountain town where people are rocked by the miraculous return of their dead loved ones. Why are they back? What do they want? How is this happening? 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Cuse to discuss adapting the French series, the emotional impact of the dead returning and what the audience can expect from A&E's newest scripted series.

Read more 'The Returned' Showrunner Raelle Tucker: How I Made It in Hollywood

Given that the French version of the series airs stateside on Sundance TV, what was it about Les Revenants that urged a remake?

It was a great premise and great premises are hard to come by. And it was the perfect combination of a character-based show and a creepy, underlying genre mythology, which I loved. I thought it had a lot of potential as a series. It's one thing to remake a foreign show that has a ton of episodes, but Les Revenants was only eight episodes. Our show makes a big divergent turn after six episodes of the French show. The two shows start in the same place, but they quickly diverge and in become very much their own thing. I like to think that the best model for me is the British and American versions of The Office. The American show started in the same place, but very quickly — especially with Steve Carell and the unique cast  of the new show — it took on its own identity.

 

 

What's the biggest challenge in adapting the series? 

The biggest challenge in any series is finding ways to make the audience really engage with the characters of the show. We have a great cast led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jeremy Sisto, and we want the audience to fall in love with these characters and go with them on this strange trippy weird journey.

How widespread is the return of the dead? Is it limited to this one small town?

That’s a good question and one the show itself will answer. Whether this is an isolated incident or if this is happening in more than one place is one of the questions that will eventually be revealed.

Would those that have returned be classified as human, or is there something supernatural to them?

It’s funny because the word, revenants — the title of the original French show — actually specifically refers to someone who is back from the dead. But it doesn’t have the same ghoulish connotation as the word zombie. It’s actually a word in English as well, but it’s more of an obscure word here. I think I would use the word revenants — which seems to allow for them to be mysterious without necessarily being evil. It’s weird, but they’re not overtly monsters. In fact, whether they are good or bad is one of the things that the show speculates about.

ABC's Resurrection tackled the same premise of the dead returning to life. What is it about the dead returning that draws viewers in?

Death is the greatest mystery in all of our lives. It’s something all of us will inevitably face, but none of us know exactly what happens after we die. It's such a foundational mystery for all of us. I think that death in a lot of ways is the event that defines life itself. Our lives are circumscribed by death. What happens when you remove death from the final event in someone’s life? What are the consequences of that? It obviously has very cool narrative potential.

Read more 'The Returned' Producers Vow A&E Remake Will 'Take Different Turn'

Watching the first four episodes, the adaptation seems near identical to French series. What was the decision behind keeping it so similar?

The decision was, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” There was so much that was good about the French show. Raelle Tucker and I tried to take all the best elements of the French show and put them in the American show. There was no reason to change things for the sake of changing things. But if you really dig down and examine the shows, even right from the beginning they are actually quite a bit different. We changed up the backstories of the characters and provided a lot of additional details about some of them, like Lucy (Leah Gibson) and Peter (Sisto). On the surface, there are a lot of similarities, but there's also a lot of work embedded deep within the DNA of the American show, which begin to set up the divergences that happen later in the season.

The first four episodes spend time with those affected by the loss of loved ones and their interactions with the dead that return. How much of the season will delve into the mystery of the resurrections?

Raelle and I are actually not all that interested in that — in solving the mystery of the returned. The show is not about why they are back from the dead. It’s not about autopsying the returned. The show explores the tremendous personal consequences that arise when someone who is super important to you suddenly returns and wants to resume the life that they had. Because the problem is that life marches forward, and there is no going back. There is no real way of just slotting into what things were like before. The thing that really attracted me about the French show, and what we really wanted to maintain, is that it’s a show with a supernatural, creepy premise that manages to stay character focused. We’re really not interested in exploring why this happened. We’re interested in exploring what the personal consequences are of these people being back from the dead.

Read more A&E's 'The Returned' Adaptation Ordered Straight to Series

After Lost you seem to have delved into the world of adaptations. How has it been juggling FX's The Strain, A&E's Bates Motel and The Returned?

I think all three of them are very different. Bates Motel really borrows the character of Norman Bates and the setting of the house and the hotel, but has a totally new construct for Norma Bates. Otherwise it’s a wholly new story. I think what  by Kerry Ehrin and I have made is a wildly different show than Psycho. I wouldn’t consider Bates Motel a very literal adaptation, definitely not a close adaptation.  — particularly right now we’re right in the middle of the second season –  As for The Strain, I would say about probably 75 percent-plus of the material in the second season is totally original. It follows some of the big benchmarks of the book, but so much of it is brand new.

The Returned was really the closest adaptation of the original material, but really only for the first five or six episodes. The reason I chose to do each of these projects was very different and specific to the project, but I did feel that each of them had a lot of potential to grow as a series. As a writer, I was really compelled to want to tell stories in these worlds. It’s weirdly coincidental that they all have kind of horror or thriller genre elements to them. Honestly, I don’t think of any of them in my own mind as being traditionally horror. I consider them all to be deeply psychological.

The other thing I really like doing as a writer is crossing genre. Each of these shows has cross genre elements. I consider The Strain to be an adventure show with horror elements. I consider The Returned to be a family drama with supernatural genre elements. I think Bates is really a nuanced character tragedy with sort of pulpy crime storytelling element combined with it. 

You are juggling four shows — with USA Network's Colony recently ordered to series. How are you striking a balance between each of these series?

The only possible way that I am able to do it is because I have fantastic collaborators on each project. I am blessed to be working with some super talented people, and I love my collaborators. The process of working with them is the thing I enjoy the most about my job.

You have a first-look deal with A+E Studios. Do you have anything in mind that you would like to do next?

I’ve got four shows going right now. I’m focused on that right now. I haven’t turned my attention to what’s next. I’ve got a lot that’s keeping me busy right now.

You previously attempted The Sixth Gun adaptation in 2013 for NBC. With the wave of comic-to-TV shows now, would you ever think of revisiting it?

Sure, I mean I love stories. I’m agnostic about where they come from — whether it’s original ideas, movies, books, comic books or graphic novels. A good story is a good story. I think we see a lot of comic book and graphic novel adaptations because those forms have become much more part of popular culture in the last 20 years. There’s a lot more of them written and a lot of really good writing storytelling in those formats. It’s makes perfect sense that people want to adapt them for TV.

The Returned airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.  

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