"Resurrection," the new ABC limited series premiering this Sunday, March 9th, begins with a little boy who's come back from the dead. This is a very trendy thing for him to do. While "The Walking Dead" continues to be a ratings behemoth with its hordes of reanimated walkers slowly chomping through the cast, a secondary zombie genre has emerged, one that's more about emotional battles than physical ones, and that focuses on how the living attempt to reintegrate the returned dead rather than ward them off.
The most acclaimed entry in this growing subgenre would have to be the French series "The Returned," which aired in the U.S. on SundanceTV last fall and is being developed for a U.S. remake at A&E, a Lynchian story of a small mountain town to which the dead have come back, exactly as they were when they died sometimes decades before. It's coming back for a second season, as is BBC America's "In The Flesh," which is set in a post-apocalypse England in which the zombies have been treated with medication and returned to a still resentful and traumatized society as suffers of "partially deceased syndrome."
Virginia Madsen, Meagan Good and Kyle Schmid have already been cast in the pilot for "Babylon Fields," which was originally created by filmmaker Michael Cuesta ("L.I.E."), his brother Gerald Cuesta and film critic Michael Atkinson for CBS in 2007 (ahead of its time) and is now being reshot by NBC, another story of the dead returning and attempting to go back to their own lives. And on the film side there's Manuel Carballo's recent feature, which is also called "The Returned," as well as Jonathan Levine's romance "Warm Bodies."
"Resurrection" isn't adapted from one of these slightly earlier series, which is a sign of just how much this idea has taken hold of the industry -- it's based on a 2013 novel by Jason Mott called, yes, "The Returned" (clearly, we are in need of more synonyms here) that ABC snapped up the rights to before it even hit shelves. But it runs through many of the same beats as these fellow series, albeit in a more clomping way, as it centers on the idyllic American town of Arcadia, MO, to which ICE agent J. Martin Bellamy (Omar Epps) returns young Jacob Langston (Landon Gimenez), who was found in a rice paddy in rural China, and who, it turns out, drowned in a river over 30 years ago.
The idea of the dead coming back is a wrenching one that combines, in terrible ways, wish fulfillment and a dizzying overturning of the normal process of grief. These characters have buried their loved ones, mourned them and moved on, and suddenly they're back, unchanged, with time having stopped for them. It's moving, especially given how Jacob's parents Henry (Kurtwood Smith) and Lucille (Frances Fisher) are now considerably older than they were when they lost him, with Henry's being gruffly resistant to the idea that Jacob's really his son, and Lucille troublingly quick to believe and worry about questions of how. We learn Jacob's not the only Arcadia resident to have experienced this mysterious resurrection, and it's implied that however he came back, he's not a normal human anymore. We also see that the town's understandably wary about the child.
"Resurrection" reaches for a sense of wonder rather than spookiness -- it's fond of having the camera go overhead for a "god's-eye-view" shot, and takes places largely in a dappled sunny afternoon haze. But it also drops in more standard plots so quickly that it feels like the show believes its own premise to be inadequate. Jacob, for instance, reveals the circumstances in which he died were misrepresented, another returned character turns out to also be harboring a mystery, and even Epps's character has some dark history.
The deceased obviously bring with them all sorts of secrets, but the rapidity with which the series turns its attention to these things rather than focusing on the world-shaking implications of what may be happening makes it feel like the series is undermining itself. "Resurrection" shouldn't need to pad out the first two episodes that were given to the press with implications of buried affairs and a possible murder -- the implicit drama of its premise provides enough juice as it, if these characters are to be given a fair shake.
That they're likely not going to be is disappointing, but not surprising in the tradition of network television trying to take on ambitious ideas. Fortunately, there are plenty of other interesting takes on similar material out there -- "The Returned" is even conveniently streaming on Netflix.