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Tapping into a primal human fascination with trumping life’s only real certainty, tales of the walking dead, whatever form those creatures take, can be sad, scary, romantic, gruesome, funny—but they nearly all have one important thing in common, and that is the fact that, no matter how powerfully we might wish otherwise, a return to the land of the living never really quite works out.
And so it goes in the French TV series The Returned (Les Revenants), about a secluded mountain town thrown into turmoil when, out of nowhere and without fanfare, its dead begin to reappear.
The first to arrive is teen Camille, who shows up at home one night and begins fixing herself a sandwich four years after her school bus plunged over a cliff. Camille looks as if she’s never been away and, indeed, she has no idea that’s the case; nor, for that matter, does handsome Simon, who, ten years earlier, died on his wedding day and now wants to reconnect with his fiancée, long since betrothed to another. Meanwhile, mysterious orphan Victor picks out lonely doctor Julie as a surrogate mom, and Julie’s one-time, would-be murderer Serge is suddenly once more stalking the streets. That’s just the first episode.
Based on a 2004 French film of the same name—and not to be confused with either this show’s American version, or the U.S. show Resurrection—The Returned tackles a difficult task, extending a movie-length idea into a series that, presumably, its makers hope will run until they are good and ready to leave off. It’s a tricky business, made trickier by the paranormal dimensions of the premise—folding worlds beyond our ken into the one we all inhabit means crafting a solid sense of those nether realms and just what, exactly, goes on within them. It’s been a problem faced, with varying degrees of success, by shows very similar in feel—think Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Lost.
But what this show does so well, and what, in the end, makes it irresistible binge bait, is the way it conveys the stomach-seizing blend of elation and terror that the very idea of resurrected loved ones inspires. It’s there in the breathless bewilderment of Camille’s mother as she beholds her long-gone daughter stacking luncheon meat at the kitchen counter, or in the guilty shock that Serge’s sudden presence sends rippling through his brother Toni, a man who’s been carrying his own bad secret.
Just as one does not listen to a good campfire ghost story then run to the library to investigate its veracity, cutting The Returned some narrative slack means letting yourself in for some scintillatingly creepy fun. Sumptuous and shadowy one minute, crisp and scenic the next, the show is just plain good-looking, and stuffed as it is with mirrors and windows, monitors and glass doors, it practically vibrates with an inescapable sense of two-way, you-are-not-alone voyeurism. All of which is nicely amplified by a dead-on soundtrack from Scottish gloomsters Mogwai, who’ve said that the show’s creators actually wrote to match the music rather than the other way around. You will find its chilling strains running through your brain at not always the most comforting moments (in the shower, say, or late at night, awake in bed). By the time the season finale cuts you off with only the barest whispers of answers to the many questions asked, you’ll be hooked, and The Returned will have you where it wants you, ready to come back for more.