“The Returned,” a French drama premiering on October 31st at 9pm on Sundance Channel and airing on subsequent Thursdays, is about the dead coming back to life, but it’s not a horror series, not really. It plays with horror tropes — a figure glimpsed in a reflection and gone when a character turns around, lights flickering on and off — but it skips the scares in favor of emotional turmoil. For instance, when Camille (Yara Pilartz), a 15-year-old girl who wakes up at the location of the bus accident in which she died four years earlier, comes home, her mother Claire (Anne Consigny) reacts with stunned, trembling acceptance. Since her daughter’s death, Claire’s turned to religion while her estranged husband Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) has sought solace in grief counseling, and Claire wonders, with some uncertainty, if Camille’s resurrection may not be the result of her prayers.
But Camille isn’t the only one who’s come back — there’s also Simon (Pierre Perrier), who passed away 10 years ago on his wedding day, and Victor (Swann Nambotin), a young boy who died even earlier. There’s no sense of what caused them to come back, or why they returned but not others.
They seem mostly normal, though they’re always hungry and have difficulty going to sleep, and eventually they’re plagued by some kind of necrosis, one that’s not exclusive to the revenants. But they can cry, they can have sex (and this being a French drama, of course they do) and they remember everything just as it was before they passed — except the exact circumstances of their death and whatever lies beyond it.
“The Returned” is the first and most sophisticated entry in a recent trend of TV projects about the dead returning to life — not as “Walking Dead”-style mindless devourers but as people trying to fit themselves back into the land of the living. It’s an idea that seems to have some resonance. “The Returned,” which is based on Robin Campillo’s 2004 film “They Came Back,” is slated for a U.S. remake. ABC’s upcoming midseason limited series “Resurrection,” adapted from a novel called “The Returned” by Jason Mott,” has a similar premise of the dead returning, unaged, to life, sometimes decades after their passing. BBC America’s “In the Flesh” presented reformed zombies being reintroduced into a resistant and sometimes resentful England. And “Babylon Fields,” a pilot about the reanimated dead attempting to reintegrate that was first created in 2007 for CBS by director Michael Cuesta, his brother Gerard and critic Michael Atkinson, has itself been brought back from the grave by NBC.
The focus here isn’t on the threat posed by the returned dead, but on the disruption and trauma of having someone whose permanent absence you’ve learned to live with suddenly back, unaltered, in the same mindset as he or she was when last alive. “Our existence is not limited to our time on earth,” Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier), the devout head of a homeless shelter tells the crowd. It’s meant to be a comfort, but it comes across as a warning. Whatever one believes about what happens after death — and “The Returned” maintains a poker face — there’s always been a hard line between being alive and not, and its disruption tumbles out secrets and complications like an upended box.
“The Returned” explores multiple interesting permutations of its central idea, as each of the eight installments (a second season’s been commissioned for 2014 by Canal+) is pegged to a different character. There’s the lover who has moved on to someone else, the identical twin reunited with a sister now four years older, the criminal whose former victim knows about his past life, and the serial killer who resumes his old compulsion. The latter storyline, as beat up and overused as it has become, doesn’t overwhelm the pensive feel of the series as a whole — like everyone else in the small town in which “The Returned” is set, nestled gorgeously amidst mountains near a dam, the killer’s life is intertwined with those of his neighbors and family, and his return seems no less urgent and monumental as any of the other characters who springboard back into the lives of the living, as we slip in and out of flashbacks to when they were alive.
Created by Fabrice Gobert (“Lights Out”), and featuring some very fine music by Mogwai that thrums with anxiety and anticipation, “The Returned” is not keenly interested in answering the questions it sets up. In that, its obvious inspiration point isn’t George A. Romero, it’s David Lynch and “Twin Peaks,” down to a diner that looks like it belongs in a Lynch film and not the French countryside.
But it’s an unshakably compelling, enigmatic mood piece that rarely takes the easy way out in its portrayals of sundered relationships between forcefully put back together. It may well be a story about the apocalypse, but it keeps its gaze firmly on the town in which it is set and the intimate crises that unfold — its indelible central image being one of the old town, previously held underwater by the new dam, reemerging slowly from water that’s mysteriously dropping, the past come back to meet the present.