I first heard "The Returned" described as "a French zombie series," which is inaccurate. Though people rise from the dead, they are as they appeared and behaved before their initial demise. Though all are ravenously hungry when they reappear, it's for normal food and not brains.
Yet I understand why it might be introduced like that, because at first glance, "The Returned" (which Sundance will begin airing tomorrow night at 9) feels like a parody of what a French zombie story would be: leisurely-paced, with very photogenic "zombies," not action-packed (though there is violence), and frequently pausing to watch characters staring off into space, contemplating the meaning of life, the afterlife and, perhaps, how many undead children can dance on the head of a pin.
But the deeper you go, the more powerful "The Returned" gets. The story takes place in a remote French mountain community, next to a lake(*) with a dam, and among the ongoing sources of tension is a mysterious shift in the water level that could wipe out the entire city. The threat of a flood is a plot point, but also a metaphor for the experience of watching "The Returned." The eight-episode series (another season has already been ordered in France) is so full of emotions — both joy and dread, often at the same time — that each episode may leave you feeling chilled and unable to move or breathe.
(*) Between "The Returned" and this year's other standout foreign imports "Top of the Lake" and "Broadchurch," I think I might like to see all future mystery series set in towns next to mountains and/or large bodies of water. At a minimum, these three projects all demonstrate just how much value there is in filming in a distinctive location, as opposed to using LA, Vancouver, Toronto or Atlanta to substitute for the actual setting.
The town does not, as one character notes, lack for tragedies, both big and small, and the resurrected characters — most prominently teenager Camille (Yara Pilartz), young musician Simon (Pierre Perrier) and a preternaturally calm (and super creepy) little boy who dubs himself Victor (Swann Nambotin) — return to circumstances very different from the ones they remember. Camille's family has fallen apart in her absence, while Simon's girlfriend Adele (Clotilde Hesme) has moved on from him.
The reactions to the undead run the gamut, even within smaller family units. Camille's parents (Anne Consigny and Frédéric Pierrot) are stunned but elated to have their little girl back, while her sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is horrified. Some of the returned are greeted with tearful hugs, others with screams of terror and rapidly locked doors. (It doesn't help that one of the returnees may have been connected to a series of killings before his first death.) A few residents are even remarkably matter-of-fact about it all, as if they've known this was coming for a while.
What makes "The Returned" so special is how raw and honest each individual reaction feels. It is a miraculous, deeply unsettling situation that is grounded by the performances, and by the show's focus on emotion above all else.
Plot-wise, the series does a lot of things that drive me nuts on other shows with fantasy or sci-fi premises. Little to no time is spent investigating the cause of this event or under what rules it operates (why do these specific people get to come back?), nor does anyone take action to deal with the possible repercussions of the dead rising from the grave, looking well-scrubbed and thoughtful. One cop spends several episodes staring slack-jawed at a bank of surveillance monitors showing people he knows to be dead, unable to take any action at all, even as these ghosts interact with his loved ones.
But when there's no inquisitiveness or urgency among the characters on "Under the Dome" or (during its weaker stretches) "The Walking Dead," everything falls apart because the characters and world feel like rough sketches. "The Returned" has such a sure command of mood(**) and character and place that the mechanics of it all don't matter. At times — particularly in its use of an interlocking flashback structure that offers surprising details about both the living and the undead — "The Returned" evokes "Lost," and certainly "Lost" at its very best was so good with its characters and its tone that the mysteries became less important. But "The Returned" never presents itself as a puzzle to be unlocked in the same way. I don't know that the show will ever offer a satisfying explanation for this phenomenon — and the plot as a whole gets a bit wobbly in the season's final chapters — but I quickly realized that I didn't care in the slightest about those answers. Because the characters and the community are so instantly compelling, why this is happening is irrelevant; that it is happening at all, and how people react to it, is all that matters.
(**) An enormous help in that regard is the score by the Scottish band Mogwai; though it sounds nothing like Angelo Badalamenti's "Twin Peaks" theme, it creates the same instant sense of dislocation and regret. Bad things have happened in this place, the music tells you, and they will continue to happen.
As the water behind the dam shifts around, strange and disturbing wonders are revealed underneath, including remnants of the town destroyed by a previous flood, as well as signs that the lake itself has something to do with what's allowed the dead to walk again. Whatever is in the water there, something remarkable is definitely in the water at Sundance at the moment. The channel only got serious about drama series in the past year, and so far, it's gone 3-for-3, with "Top of the Lake," "Rectify" and now "The Returned" — all of them among the very best TV shows of the year. Now, "Top of the Lake" was co-produced with foreign partners, and "The Returned" is a pre-existing French series that Sundance is airing locally, but there's an impeccable — and consistent — sense of taste guiding the programming choices so far. All three of the series to date operate at a pace that's slow without ever feeling like it's dragging, give you an immediate sense of place and work at an emotional level that feels much richer than all but a handful of dramas on other channels.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Same spoiler rules apply to this as to all foreign imports: if it hasn't aired yet in America, it's a spoiler. Those of you who've seen all of the first season, keep your comments vague. Anything too detailed gets deleted.