The Returned: TV Review

Canal Plus, Photographer: Rob Payne
"The Returned" on Sundance Channel
In a bucolic French town, the dead are returning. But they don't look like zombies. And they don't all know that they're dead. This creates a lot of emotional problems for their loved one and ends up being one of the most beautiful and disturbing series of the year. 

This mesmerizing and creepy French series, airing on Sundance, is less about zombies in a traditional sense than an existential meditation on life and death -- of the most riveting, unsettling kind.

As if there wasn’t enough great television made in America, overwhelming the masses with viewing decisions, clogging up DVRs and allowing critics to champion this continued Renaissance, it’s also pretty clear that the rest of the world is churning out amazing series as well.

We’re all going to need longer days.

On the heels of the wonderful Ireland-based comedy Moone Boy and the brilliant, dark British mystery Broadchurch comes The Returned, an eight-part French series described as a zombie series but one that’s completely unrecognizable -- in a mesmerizing way -- from the genre.

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The Returned, like Broadchurch before it, is one of those series where you watch the first hour and then frantically try to find time to devour the next seven. Defying expectations while rewiring what a “zombie” series can be, The Returned is one of the most intriguing, utterly original offerings of the year.

And while it’s not particularly keen to give out pat answers or, for that matter, many answers at all, that’s all part of what makes the series so oddly magnetic. (A second season will air in 2014.)

Although The Returned will debut on the Sundance Channel on Halloween, don’t go into it thinking you’ll find the French version of The Walking Dead, which airs on Sundance’s sister channel, AMC. Nope. As fantastic as the notion might be for a truly French zombie culture, The Returned deals in a whole different set of creepiness and is, in many ways, far more unsettling.

Set in a bucolic, rural French town, The Returned is based on the 2004 movie They Came Back (Les Revenants) and posits that the dead are indeed returning home, unexpectedly, seemingly whole and out of nowhere (meaning no rotting flesh, no outward signs of wanting to eat anyone’s flesh, although they are incredibly hungry). The series begins with a heartbreaking and bizarre bus crash four years earlier that kills dozens of the town’s young children. It then moves to present day, as Camille (Yara Pilartz) walks up a steep embankment and on to the road leading to town. We know she was one of the girls on the bus, and yet she seems perfectly fine.

Co-written and directed by Fabrice Gobert, the series is instantly riveting precisely because it’s not your standard zombie fare and mostly because viewers have no idea what Gobert is up to. Being French, he’s clearly more interested in the existential aspects of life (and death, of course) and the immensely complicated notions of loss, love, family, hope, fear and that most beguiling and dangerous of all things, the unknown.

In almost no time, The Returned announces itself as smartly written, superbly cast and tremendously unsettling. Camille takes a very long walk back into town and does what probably anyone else would do -- she goes home. She doesn’t know that her home has been shattered by her death. Her father, Jerome (Frederic Pierott), went into a drinking spiral that led to separation from his wife, Claire (Anne Consigny), who has found a way to cope with her devastating loss by falling for Pierre (Jean-Francois Sivadier), a religious man and grief counselor whose Helping Hand shelter takes in all who need it.

Of course, the moment that Claire hears something in the kitchen and walks downstairs to find Camille making a sandwich like nothing’s happened, the world of Claire, Jerome and Pierre gets upended, as do the lives of others in the small town as a few other mysterious dead residents return home.

What Gobert gets to -- and sticks with -- quickly is the depiction of what witnessing the unbelievable really does to you when that revelation involves a loved one. Camille has been dead for four years and, like other parents, Claire has been praying and grieving about the loss ever since. And then, voila, there’s Camille.

But nothing is that easy, right? The Returned deftly nails all the emotions you’d imagine and doesn’t gloss over them. It’s not like Claire and Jerome are just going to freak out for five minutes and then be fine about it. They are, for a very long time, spooked out and also overcome with happiness simultaneously. And they are well aware that it’s not like they can just go to the market with Camille. Pierre realizes this is some kind of miracle, but you get the sense that he’s been expecting it and perhaps planning for it (he has, but not in ways your cynical mind might leap to).

And that’s what keeps The Returned so fresh. It’s not afraid of smart (and yes, sometimes dubious) twists. The one that cements the feeling you’re in good hands (and also in for a strange and mystifying journey) comes when Camille’s rebellious sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), comes home from the Lake Pub, where much of the town goes to drink, and has a refreshingly real and harrowing freak-out upon seeing Camille.

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And who wouldn’t? Claire, the mother, couldn’t unravel upon seeing Camille for fear of making Camille, who has no idea that anything’s wrong, perhaps flee like a startled bird or something. Jerome, the father, has a wonderfully subtle sense of shock where you get the feeling he’s worried that he’s either drunk or in a dream state and any kind of flip-out on his part will shatter the illusion and return him to a world where Camille is dead.

But Lena has no such adult worries. She flat-out goes breathless and screams. A natural reaction to an unexpected resurrection. And Gobert takes his sweet time revealing that the girls are twins, which sublimely expands Lena’s horrified vision of her younger self.

The Returned is full of such elements. Each episode takes one character in town (some who have died and returned, others simply relatives, old friends or lovers of the dead or, more cleverly, victims of their past behaviors while living) and flashes back on what happened. The series has a pretty tangled web -- not all of it works, but the effort is always intriguing.

For instance, among the stories, one that is the most heartfelt, mysterious and creepy is that of a young boy (Swann Nambotin) who shows up in town but won’t speak. We learn that (unseen in the first episode) it was him standing in the road, just around a corner, that caused the bus crash that killed all the kids. And he’s taken in by Julie (Celine Sallette), a nurse, who tries to find the missing boy’s parents but nobody has reported him missing. He's like a dog she can’t get rid of, so Julie ends up taking him in and calling him “Victor.” Ah, but that kid is all kinds of mute oddness and viewers know either something very bad has happened to him or he’s done something very bad to others. And yet…wow, is he adorable.

The Victor storyline is a real marvel of ambition and Gobert is able to place the boy in a number of intermingled stories. A less successful introduction is Serge (Guillaume Gouix), one of the returned. Serge was actually a serial killer in the town and his first victim -- who survived, though barely -- was Julie, the nurse. You can applaud The Returned for its ambitiousness, however, because even when the main tenet of an idea doesn’t work (a serial killer is like three cherries on top of a large sundae when it comes to all the disturbing elements in this series), the Julie story is particularly moving because of how Serge's attack changed her life. So you couldn’t have one without the other.

News of a second season, even if it’s a couple of years after the fact (The Returned premiered in France in November  2012), is welcome because there are a lot of plotlines that can be continued or tied up.

On the other hand, The Returned manages to be spectacularly engaging even with those loopholes -- a testament to its ambition surely, but primarily to the fact that despite any shortcoming you might encounter, you can’t help but want to watch the next hour right away.

Having watched all eight, I was impressed to see how many plates were spinning by that last hour and how much payoff was expected and excitedly anticipated by that time. Sure, some of the plates fell to the ground, but The Returned  was never dull; it was a visual pleasure and ultimately proved to be a challenging change-up to the zombie genre, with its smart dialogue, provocative emotions, wonderful acting and intellectual curiosity about love and loss.

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