Given the number of zombie or supernatural films and series around at the minute, what with The Walking Dead and True Blood, among others, you would think a drama based around people returning from the dead would seem unoriginal and uncalled for. Not so with Channel 4’s cannily-chosen French import, The Returned (from the French Les Revenants), which aired over the summer.
It centres on how various inhabitants of a sleepy Alpine village suddenly return from the dead, and how their loved ones react upon seeing them again. However, this is no ordinary return. Don’t go thinking zombies either. The formerly-deceased have no idea that they have ever been dead, have not aged at all since their respective demises, and believe that no time has passed since they last closed their eyes, even though in some cases it has been a number of years. So, all in all, not much for their families to deal with, then.
I probably should take the time to mention at this point that The Returned is weird, in some aspects very weird. But, if you’re not put off by the sex, violence, surfeit of resurrected people, or, God forbid, the French, then this atmospheric drama has a great deal going for it. For a start, there is such a broad range of characters (be they dead or alive), with such varying stories, that you can never take your eyes off the screen. Among others, there’s wide-eyed teenage schoolgirl Camille, who returns to her family years after a bus accident; mysterious young boy Victor (who is unnervingly silent to begin with), and drifter Simon, who returns to find that his fiancée at the time of his death has started a new life.
Repressed feelings which have long been bubbling beneath the surface within families and other social circles come to the fore with unstoppable force and threaten to make this once-quiet village into a nightmare town.
As well as some compelling characters, there’s a refreshing feeling to this series, too. The ways that the respective families deal with their grief and the subsequent shock of their loved ones coming back to them are manifold and intriguing, and it’s the effect on the living as well as the ‘returned’ that much emphasis is placed on. The would-be slogan of the show, first mentioned in an advert on Channel 4 – ‘The past is not dead’ – comes to define it in all sorts of ways. Repressed feelings which have long been bubbling beneath the surface within families and other social circles come to the fore with unstoppable force and threaten to make this once-quiet village into a nightmare town. It’s done subtly, and almost glacially slowly, but to great effect.
However, just because there’s a new feel to the series, that’s not to say that it doesn’t try a few twists on the established tropes of the genre. Some of the ‘returned’ are unable to sleep, or are perpetually hungry, but these aspects are coolly underplayed, contributing brilliantly to the show’s spine-tingling atmosphere.
It may take a couple of episodes to get going, but once it does, from the mist-shrouded mountains of the opening credits, to the final, often revelation-packed few minutes, The Returned has you in its grip. When in full flow, I’ve found that it possesses a strange kind of beauty that very few other series have. The show seems to seep into your bones after not very long, making you desperate for more, in awe of its deft balancing of plot, atmosphere and relationships against an almost dreamlike backdrop. As soon as the ethereal, stark theme tune first begins to play (Glaswegian band Mogwai on top form), you know that you won’t be able to keep your eyes off the screen.
It is, purely and simply, magical
It is, purely and simply, magical, and we need a bit of magic every now and again. Who would have thought that a show about death could be such a breath of fresh air? Yes, it may not have given us answers to the important questions, but all good things leave us wanting more, and the sheer emotional force of The Returned, along with its undeniable atmosphere and style, make it one of the best and most original series in years. It manages to create something all of its own, so whether or not it has explained things, for now, that’s enough. The worst thing about it is that viewers will now have to wait until the end of 2014 to find out what happens next.