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The Thinking Dead: ‘The Returned’ Is a Zombie Show With (Delicious) Brains

'The Returned's Zombies Have Brains

When a headline in yesterday’s Hollywood Reporter asked, “The Walking Dead Is TV’s No. 1 Show — Why Aren’t Its Stars More Famous?” I couldn’t resist an easy retort: Because they’re terrible actors. But the answer has less to do with the actors themselves, some of whom have done good work elsewhere, than the show itself, which puts far more care into devising innovative “kills” than developing its characters. 

Given the vogue for all things undead, it’s not surprising that The Returned, an eight-part series that begins its run on Sundance Channel tonight, has been positioned as show about zombies. (Episodes will be available on digital platforms the following day.) But despite the fact that it’s about a small French town whose dead inexplicably return to life, it has far more in common with The Sweet Hereafter or Broadchurch — or even “The Monkey’s Paw” — than Night of the Living Dead.

Early in The Returned not long after a bus full of schoolchildren plummets off the side of a mountain road, the camera moves in quietly on a glass case filled with butterflies, their lifeless forms neatly pinned and perfectly displayed. And then, one butterfly’s wing begins to beat, slowly at first, and then frantically, until the glass shatters and it heads towards the light.

It’s a striking image, and one that I suspect will resonate all through the series, which critics have been giving rave reviews. The Returned, which is adapted from Robin Campillo’s 2004 film, They Come Back, is as beautiful as it is disturbing, built around an idea that is appealing in the abstract but terrifying in execution: What if the dead came back? What if your teenage daughter, or the man you loved, returned to you, years or even decades past the time you’d learned to reckon with the grief of their loss? Would it seem like a miracle, or might you secretly, in a place you won’t admit even to yourself, wish they’d go back to being dead?

Fair warning: Critics were provided with all of The Returned‘s first season — a second is already in the works — and most of the reviews delve into details that are hinted at but not explained in the first episode. But even without clicking through, these excerpts should offer plenty of evidence that it’s a show you need to be watching.

Brian Lowry, Variety:

To call The Returned a zombie story is actually something of a misnomer, since it’s really a tale of grief and loss — and a rumination on life and death — with a creepy undercurrent running through it.

Alison Willmore, Indiewire:

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. 

Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly:

Deep down, this is a drama about nostalgia. Beautifully shot and darkly lit, in muted blues and greys, it looks more like a surreal memory than real life.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:

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. 

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times:

There is none of the supernatural math that underlies many such stories (Indian burial ground + suburban tract = Poltergeist), or any sub-biblical gobbledygook. When dead characters talk about heaven or the afterlife here, they are improvising for the benefit of the living; when the living get biblical, we see them as misguided.

Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter:

The Returned deftly nails all the emotions you’d imagine and doesn’t gloss over them. It’s not like Claire and Jerome are just going to freak out for five minutes and then be fine about it. They are, for a very long time, spooked out and also overcome with happiness simultaneously. And they are well aware that it’s not like they can just go to the market with Camille. Pierre realizes this is some kind of miracle, but you get the sense that he’s been expecting it and perhaps planning for it (he has, but not in ways your cynical mind might leap to).

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club:

The mood develops exquisitely from the first frame. Filmed in the French Alps, the series’ locations have a unique look, one that utilizes the outdoor surroundings and barren outposts of such an isolated town. Though it possesses several moving dialogue scenes, The Returned is never afraid to go silent for long periods of time — to simply observe its characters, both living and dead, adjusting to what their lives have become. The series boasts some haunting imagery: a church steeple poking out above a placid lake’s surface; a young woman bathed in a pool of light, waiting for something horrible to happen. An excellent, brooding score by post-rock outfit Mogwai adds to the gloom.

Mo Ryan, Huffington Post:

Like most good horror fare — or at least the horror fare I enjoy — at its core, The Returned grapples with emotional conundrums that resist easy solutions. One of the earliest scenes of the series depicts a support group for parents of dead children, and with capable assurance in that sequence and others, The Returned establishes how difficult it has been for people to move on from devastating losses and paralyzing grief.

James Poniewozik, Time:

The Returned also an expertly suspenseful thriller — but one where part of the thrill is learning, only gradually, what kind of thriller it is. The Returned’s refusal to explain the resurrections adds to the disorienting feeling that one is walking through a dream.

Willa Paskin, Slate:

Unlike with zombie stories, the problem with The Returned’s resurrected is not that they are undead — it is that they are all too alive. When Camille’s mother (Anne Consigny) finds her in the kitchen, she does none of the things you might expect: She does not scream, she does not embrace her child, she does not call the police, she does not walk away imagining that she is hallucinating, she does not even smile. Instead, she nervously behaves as if everything is normal, moving and speaking carefully so as not to frighten her daughter away. Camille has only just appeared, but instantaneously her mother intuits that she can, now, horribly, be lost again.

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