'The Returned': Zombies with Elan and Souls, Speaking French

Television
by Caryn James
November 29, 2013 8:30 AM
1 Comment
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The back-from-the-dead characters in Sundance Channel's smart, enthralling series The Returned have much more elan than your usual zombies -- and not only because they speak French, although that helps. There's no lurching around, no corroded faces slipping away from the skull. These are flesh and blood people who have returned to their isolated mountain town years after they were dead and buried, resuming their existences where they left off, while time for others has moved on. Camille, 15 years old when her school bus crashed, walks back in the door one day with no idea of how she got there, only to find that her twin, Lena, is now 19. (In photo above.) 

These returned also have more soul than typical zombies. Theirs are not horror stories but Lazarus stories, layered with psychology, emotion, and a tinge of spirituality.

(If you've missed the early episodes, you can catch a marathon of the five shown so far, starting Sunday at 3:45 ET, with more marathons through December. Schedule at Sundancechannel.com).

The intelligence, depth and style of the series is especially apparent if you compare it to the 2004 film that inspired it, Les Revenants (They Came Back in its English version).  Those returned lurch a bit and often seem simple-minded. The film has a darker look, and an unsatisfying end: they come, they go, we never know why.

The series is shot with crisp, natural clarity and has a sophisticated structure, each episode focused on a single character while weaving in other stories. Simon, a curly-haired young man who died on his wedding day, comes back to find that his fiancee, Adele, is now living with their small daughter and Adele's new fiancee, Thomas, a fiercely suspicious, jealous policeman. He's right  to be jealous; these undead have whole, unscathed bodies, the better to have sex. It's Thomas who quizzes the local priest about resurrection, not a bad question under the circumstances. (Zombies -- the new Easter bunnies!)

Victor, a small boy with haunted eyes, latches onto Julia, a nurse with her own fraught history. Each episode fills in more of the past through flashbacks, even while the returned try to get on with their lives, at first under the radar, then more openly.

The series' few horror tropes are its least effective elements. A would-be killer attacks women in a dark tunnel, stabbing them in the abdomen and chewing on their flesh, leaving them not-quite-dead. But the minute you see a woman walk into that lonely tunnel, it becomes the moment in the horror-movie when you yell, "Don't go in the house, stupid!" (One SPOILER: the supernatural creepiness is enhanced as the series goes on, like the mysterious scar on Lena's back that keeps growing.)

But The Returned is always less jump-out-of-your-seat scary than thoughtful and eerie. These characters are not metaphorical, as zombies and vampires so often are. They deal in emotions. We see how love endures and changes -- does Adele choose Simon or Thomas?  -- and how grief alters relationships, like the crumbling marriage of Camille's parents.

With three new episodes left, and a second season in the works in France, we still haven't seen why these people have returned. It could be forgiveness or vengeance or both. But the reason is not likely to have much to do with creepy dark tunnels. The originality and appeal of The Returned comes from the way it makes these undead so strangely human and real. 

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1 Comment

  • lily | November 29, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    i think this is the best zombie apocalypse show i have ever watched. the whole concept was phenomenal and the acting was superb. the fact that they came back normal but with their old wounds still intact and no recollection of what happened is more creepy and builds more suspense than having the obvious braindead zombies.

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