'The Returned' Season 2: TV Review

SundanceTV's The Returned - H 2015
Courtesy of Jean-Claude Lother
Still good, if a bit diminished.

SundanceTV's undead drama is still creepy, but it may have been gone for too long.

Striking while the iron is as cold as a morgue slab, one of the finest TV shows of 2013 finally premieres its second season on Halloween night, still effective but also somewhat hindered by the long absence.

Staggered distribution is nothing new for the French drama The Returned, or Les Revenants if you want to go all native. Based on a 2004 film, The Returned launched on Canal+ in November of 2012 and then on SundanceTV in October of 2013.

The Returned premiered in the height of popularity for The Walking Dead and was dubbed a French zombie show by many, but its approach to the undead was more chilly and philosophical, less gory and vicious. It was fresh and unique.

Since the eerie story of the dead coming back to life in a small French mountain town aired its first season, The Returned has been remade, borrowed from and thematically emulated to the point at which its freshness has been unavoidably diluted and diminished. There was A&E's credited remake, which lasted only a season. There was ABC's uncredited copycat Resurrection, which premiered huge in spring 2014 and squandered its audience in near-recorded time before cancelation after 21 episodes. And while HBO's The Leftovers has the inverted premise — loved ones departing inexplicably rather than arriving — the meditations on grief, the mysteries of the afterlife and general human connectivity have definite echoes.

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Maybe that distance and those levels of remove explain why the first two episodes of the new season of The Returned put me in the odd position of only remembering select plot details from a show that made my Top 10 in 2013.

Fortunately, initial disorientation is part of the structure of the season. The Returned picks up six months after the flooding of the town and the seeming disappearance of some percentage of the undeceased at the Helping Hand shelter. For reasons nobody can explain, much of the town remains underwater, the dam is now under military surveillance and many of the townspeople are in the unfathomable position of having welcomed loved ones back from the dead only to have seemingly lost them again.

Nobody in this town is gone for good, but explaining the exact geographical and spiritual logistics of where different people are would tax my memory and hurt your brain. Remember grieving father Jerome (Frederic Pierrot)? His family fell apart after Camille's (Yara Pilartz) death and then re-formed uncomfortably after she returned, now four years younger than her twin sister Lena (Jenna Thiam)? Well, Jerome has grown a prodigious beard and, like every conspiracy-obsessed TV character, he's assembled a corkboard of charts, newspaper clippings and maps all trying to understand who came back, where they came back, how they died, why other people haven't come back and and other logistical quandaries. While Jerome's grief-stricken bewilderment was often meant as a point-of-emotional-entry for viewers in the first season, his new mania has been marginalized and viewers are dissuaded from following similar paths of inquiry. 

Season one of The Returned was invested in asking very pure questions. How would you respond if somebody you loved died and later came back? Or, from the other perspective, how would you feel if you took leave of your life for a few years and then inexplicable returned to find the people you loved had moved on? The two-sided alienation and relief was accessible and creator Fabrice Gobert's storytelling structure was breathtakingly elegant. Individual episodes usually related to individual newly returned characters and concluded with a jaw-dropping revelation that brought order to the same shattered relationships viewers were trying to comprehend as well.

The first two episodes of the second season lack that purity and that elegance. The universality of its questions has been replaced by the very specific oddities of this one community and its unique ties to The Other Side. If the first season was about how life would change if a few people started coming back, we're now meant to grapple with these returns becoming almost commonplace. So the dead have gone from being a fringe minority to a key piece of the local topography and thus new questions arise. How are the dead distinct from one another? Who remembers how much from their former lives? Do the dead start taking up separate residences or form packs? How much are you tied to your actual families and peers and how much can you start over? Do the living become allies or impediments? And once the dead come back, can they still change? These questions don't lack for intrigue, but The Returned is putting aside the relatable and the primal in favor of something far more muddled.

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This changes the viewer's experience of The Returned and not always for the better. The emotional bombs detonated at the end of episodes are largely gone and with them, the "Ah-ha!" revelations that justified and illuminated strange character interactions. It's mostly necessary to just nod and accept that everything in this world is strange and only meant to be comprehended in a limited way. That's less satisfying and pleasingly cathartic than it was in the first season.

The tone of this new paradigm is more consistently and unrelentingly haunted as well. Nobody was exactly jumping up and down or happily skipping when people started coming back from the dead last season, but there were occasional hints of happiness and relief, but melancholy and disaffection are now pervasive.

Yet The Returned is hypnotic and otherworldly in a way that keeps it compelling. If Gobert has overcomplicated everything in his capacity as co-writer, in his capacity as co-director, his sense of what is unsettling is intact. The submerged portions of the town are potent visual metaphors, as are the evacuated streets of the rest of the it. I didn't always remember where characters had been or what they'd done, but the reaction from a streetlight poking out above the still water, a stag promenading through an empty public square or the poorly lit hallways of a ghost hospital is visceral. The Returned has a pacing and rhythm all its own and Gobert hasn't sacrificed the hypnotic mood just because the storytelling seems cluttered.

The performances also continue to be committed, even if they're committed to a tone that is less than varied and even if new additions like Laurent Lucas' Berg and Michael Abiteboul's Milan fail to offer any variation at all. Standouts include Celine Sallette as unsteady nurse Julie and Swann Nambotin as the eternally creepy Victor, whose inevitable aging had to be tentatively justified with a line or two of dialogue.

I still love how The Returned fits into the SundanceTV brand. If The Walking Dead, with its unrelenting carnage and increasing disinterest in nuance represent how AMC does a zombie drama (and how many millions want to see zombie dramas done), The Returned is how the network of Rectify handles the undead (for a far tinier audience). The long-delayed second season may not be as satisfying as the first, but this is horror that settles into your bones instead of making you jump.