Most zombie tropes, from 28 Days Later to Dawn of the Dead to the popular AMC show the Walking Dead, are characterized by splattered brains and Frankenstein trots. The glorification of the undead, in large part, has really been an exercise in the horror of the absurd.
This is not the case in The Returned (French: Les Revenants). The show recently won an International Emmy for Best Drama Series, and has been a runaway hit in its native France and other European markets (primarily Sweden and Belgium). It first came to the U.S. through the Sundance Channel, which aired the first season with English subtitles this past fall, and the show was well-received by critics and fans alike, with an 8.3 rating on IMDB. In January, Sundance picked up season two, currently in production.
While it is pigeonholed — mostly incorrectly, in this viewer’s opinion — as a “zombie” show, The Returned has little in common with almost every existing zombie motif. The gore is replaced with psychological intrigue. The guttural moaning and dead eyes are also absent; in The Returned, the undead appear to look, think and act exactly like the living counterparts they left behind.
This distinction makes for interesting interactions between the two groups. While the typical zombie conflict comes between the undead and the townspeople (see Frankenstein’s monster vs. pitchfork-wielding townspeople), The Returned opts for a more cerebral, complicated conflict.
Set in a French hamlet carved into the mountainside, the show was originally adapted from a 2004 movie called Les Revenants, literally translated to “They Came Back.” Perhaps this is why the show feels cinematic in its scope, expertly paced with rich characters all operating just outside the peripheral vision of one another.
The Returned opens when 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) returns to her family four years after a bus accident killed her. The family, broken apart during the fallout of her death, is understandably surprised. But nobody — her sister, mother or father — panics or faints or attacks their deceased daughter; instead they hesitantly welcome her, show her to her old room and start trying to tease out the meaning of all this. The Camille storyline, much like the others which will soon run more or less parallel to this central narrative, soon hinges not on solving the problem of the undead but figuring out to re-assimilate them into the world of the living.
“Am I some kind of zombie?” Camille (Yara Pilartz) asks in one early scene. “No, you’re not some kind of zombie,” replies a local doctor. “What, then?” “You’re not the first, Camille. It has happened before. … You were granted a new existence.”
The town, creepily pristine and unassuming, struggles to right itself with the troubling discovery. While the principal characters (the returned) remain the impetus, it’s the indefinable threats — the hunt for a mysterious killer, the domestic dynamics between torn-apart families, the disturbing current of paranoia — which kept me on tenterhooks throughout the first season.
A note on the subtitles: while they may bother some, for me the language barrier required a vigilance that pays off in such a layered, character-driven story. With so many inter-mingling characters — both undead and not — the show rewards those viewers who keep eyes glued to the screen.
Conflicts often come villager-to-villager, police vs. the innocents, or internally, the living and undead struggling with their own past and current predicament. The lines between this life and the next are blurred, and likewise death, suffering, and resurrection become relative.
Therein lies the show’s appeal: The viewer’s sympathy lies both with the undead and their living counterparts, the morality of it all tested with every plot twist.
Thanks to this intriguing ambiguity as well as the strong acting and excellent plot development, The Returned is a compulsively watchable program tailor-made for an era of television binges. It’s also a strong start for Canal Plus, a premium French channel reminiscent of HBO, on which the show first aired. As Canal Plus attempts to siphon a piece of the gigantic U.S. market, it will rely heavily on award-winning, audience-consuming shows. The Returned is a good place to start.