We have to be especially careful, in the age of the ubiquitous "recap," not to spell out too much in our discussions of "The Returned," a first-rate French suspense series of cold chills and dread that began its U.S. run last week on The Sundance Channel. The show parcels out dollops of information with pinpoint timing, so the less you know going in, the better.
The advertised premise has the dead returning to life in a majestic small city in the French Alps, neither as ghosts or zombies but apparently simply as themselves, wandering back into town as freaked out by the situation as any of their pole-axed relatives.
But despite a storyline that may yet turn out to have science fiction or supernatural underpinnings (I've watched the first three of its eight episodes and I still have no clue), the subtitled show is a drama series at heart. The textures of life in the city, the varied reactions of the living to the reappearance of their loved ones, often with feelings of regret and guilt still unresolved, the complication of those reactions by the tight interweaving of relationships in a small town -- all of this is beautifully realized. (I am not yet a fan of the plotline about the return of an infamous local serial killer, but it's early innings yet.)
One of the most remarkable things about the show is the wide variety of personalities and responses that its creator and principal writer, Fabrice Gobert, has imagined and woven together.
At one extreme there is the elderly man so distressed by the return of his wife-- as the younger woman she once was-- that he burns down his own house with her inside. At the other extreme, a family that with great difficulty had begun to move on after the death of a child attempts to welcome her home and reconstitute the family, with the help of a religious advisor who sees the return as a gift, or even a miracle, a stance that in context makes perfect sense.
Most of the responses are more ambiguous and conflicted than those key ones. Several scenes dramatize the turmoil caused not by aging or decay but by its opposite -- such as the teenage girl (Jenna Thiam's Lena) whose returned twin sister is now four years younger than she is. Or the woman in her mid-thirties (Clotilde Hesme's Adele) whose long-dead fiancé has returned as the teenaged Adonis she still vividly remembers. For Adele it's an easier leap to see him as a ghost or a hallucination, an indication of just how uncanny it would feel if the marks of the passage of time could be erased.
The theme of reanimation is a particularly unsettling form of turning back the flow of time, of "digging up the past." It’s used here magnificently, to explore the many forms of heartache that stem from our human awareness that we are temporary, that everything ages and decays. The sublime and chilly mountain settings, as close to eternal landmarks as anything we're aware of, seems perfect for that. But it does get cold up there. You might feel a need to slip on a sweater while you're watching "The Returned."