By Caryn James | James on Screens November 29, 2013 at 8:30AM
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
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.