The Returned

This highly-imaginative French series about the undead excels in writing, performance and cinematography.

2013-10-12_2354They’re not zombies. They’re not ghosts. But they are the walking dead.

The French drama series The Returned (Les Revenants) takes a genre subject but turns it on its head in a captivating, stylish way normally reserved for other dramas. On every level this 8 part series excels: writing, performance, cinematography -and especially imagination.

The setting for this ethereal drama is a small village nestled in the French mountains. If you’ve ever seen the Tour de France you’ll know how dramatic this landscape is and the wide shots certainly bring a sense of awe. But with its haunting cello soundtrack it begins to take on a Twin Peaks feel (check out the stunning credit sequence).

We follow a school bus as it winds through the mountain-side, on board are students, one of whom is a 15 year old girl, Camille (Yara Pilartz). While it all seems harmless enough, without any warning suddenly the bus veers off the road and over the edge. Filmed in silent, wide shot it’s a compelling opening, not the least of which because there appears to be no explanation for why it crashed. Did the driver have a heart attack? And how the hell did they film it?

Next we meet a circle of adults discussing a memorial for those they have lost in some kind of therapy session. It’s not clear how much time has intervened between the two incidents, but they are about to approach an anniversary.

Elsewhere, Camille is seen walking down a road through the mountains, the very same path taken by the bus. As she walks past streetlights they flicker ever so briefly. Spooky stuff. She walks all the way to her home where her mother is home alone.

The scene between mother facing her deceased daughter is rivetting. While one character is so shocked she can barely breathe, the other is apologising for being late and wondering what’s for dinner. This should not be happening….

The Returned is based on a 2004 film They Came Back and while each episode focusses on a different (dead) character returning home, this is an ensemble drama. In the first episode you will also meet others inexplicably making their way back.

Another sub-plot includes an old man whose loved one returns. Then there’s the handsome young man Simon (Pierre Perrier) looking for his fiancee, Adèle (Clotilde Hesme). A small boy befriends a nurse named Julie (Céline Sallette).

Some of the ways they are linked by degrees of separation is quite ingenious. But one of the drama’s masterstrokes is the way it plays with time (and the less said about that the better). More questions are raised than answered.

But there are no ghouls and dismembered undead walking the earth here. Nobody is out to seek revenge. We’re not squirming with delight at grisly scenes or perched on the edge of our couches waiting for the next horror moment. Not a CGI stunt in sight.

Instead, this is a quietly-affecting and deeply perplexing look at family, and a tapestry of characters caught in a surreal experience. This is presented in French with English subtitles, and while there may be elements of Scandinavian storytelling with its use of stillness and sub-text, the plotting has momentum.

It’s no wonder this series has attracted stellar reviews and last week was nominated for an International Emmy Award.

The Returned is one of the most imaginative, alluring dramas to emerge this year.

See it before it gets an English-speaking adaptation.

The Returned airs 8pm Wednesday on STUDIO.

Disclaimer: STUDIO advertises at TV Tonight.

7 Responses

  1. @DocSteve — This is what happened with Under the Dome. It was originally meant to be wrapped up after 13 episodes, but somewhere in the middle of the episodes, the producers realised they had a hit on their hand.

    So they decided to extend the story into a 2nd season, which resulted in a slew of stupid, made-up-as-they-went-along storylines in season 1, simply added to stretch out the story.

    The show became unwatchable and ridiculous.

  2. If you’re not keen on French sub-titles, Brad Pitt and ABC in the US have picked up the English rights to the book this is based on: The Returned by Jason Mott.

    They plan to release an American version of the story called Resurrection in 2014.

  3. Be prepared to be very disappointed. The series is mostly well done and atmospheric. But, somewhere in the process somebody decided they wanted to extend this out to another series. So the ending that should have explained all the goings-on isn’t there, and it just fizzles.

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