First off, apologies for that misleading headline. Technically speaking, yes, the Sundance Channel's new scripted series The Returned is about zombies. Just not in the traditional sense, because there's nothing traditional about The Returned. It's unlike anything else on television right now, or in recent memory.
Critics and Sundance Channel marketing heads are selling The Returned (premiering tonight at 9 p.m. EST) as a "French zombie series," and understandably so. Yes, people do come back from the dead and start walking amongst the living. On two occasions during the show's eight-episode run, one character refers to she and her fellow revived corpses as the Z-word, albeit playfully, as if she's winking directly at said critics and marketing execs. There will be plenty of The Walking Dead fans who'll give The Returned a look simply because of its walker connection, but viewers hoping to see another survival tale about mobile cadavers eating people and getting cross-bow arrows shot into their head should be warned: The Returned is the anti-Walking Dead. It's the anti-everything-you-think-you-know-about-zombies, in fact. Most importantly, though, it's a shoe-in for any forthcoming lists of "2013's best TV shows" you'll see on this website.
Originally airing in France from late November through mid-December 2012, The Returned (or Les Revenants, as it was billed in its native country) isn't exactly horror, but it's quite often horrifying and profoundly disturbing. But the macabre, character-driven series is more about emotions than scares—for every time you'll cower in fear, you'll feel those heart-strings tug three to four more times.
Yet it's never weepy or heavy-handedly melodramatic. As overseen by series creator Fabrice Gorbet, The Returned strikes the perfect balance between creepiness and poignancy. That duality is in the show's premise: In a small, tightly knit community, five long-dead people have inexplicably come back, looking and acting exactly like they did right before they died.
Camille (Yara Pilartz), 15 years old when she perished in a freak school bus accident four years prior, tries to ingratiate herself back into the lives of her now-separated parents and now-19-year-old sister, Léna (Jenna Thiam); Simon (Pierre Perrier), a guitarist who died 10 years earlier, wants to reclaim his one true love, Adèle (Clotilde Hesme), but she's living happily with her young daughter, Chloe (Brune Martin), and fiancé, Thomas (Samir Guesmi), a police department captain; Madame Costa (Laetitia de Fombelle) shows up at her now-elderly husband's home after being dead for 30 years, much to his bewilderment; Serge (Guillaume Gouix) returns to his brother Toni's (Grégory Gadebois) farm, the same sadistic, organ devourer of women he was before his death seven years prior; and Victor (Swann Nambotin, giving phenomenal "creepy kid" throughout), a little pre-teen boy who doesn't talk much, takes a quick liking to Julie (Céline Sallette), a single, unhappy woman who's battling the aftereffects of a gruesome brush with death.
The Returned echoes Lost in its handling of flashbacks to develop its characters, but it's not about mysteries. There's no murky allusions to anything like the Dharma Initiative, and there aren't any CGI "smoke monsters." Aside from the whole dead-are-back-to-life thing, The Returned isn't concerned with anything fantastical or supernatural. The show lives and die by its characters, and, in that, it's a tremendous success. Though it's never named, the central town to which the deceased have returned feels remarkably lived in. It's immediately apparent that it's a place full of dark secrets, many of which are organically revealed without any flag-waving. The police captain's hard-nosed female lieutenant who seems to just be occupying space in The Returned's first two hours? She has a strong, personal connection to one of the characters you've spent much time with up until that point. The same thing goes for every other seemingly insignificant participant in The Returned's meticulously structured narrative. These lives are being dramatically altered—and, in several cases, royally screwed up—by the phenomenon that's suddenly taken place. You won't be able to guess how exactly, yet you won't be mad about that, even as the series progresses with less answers supplied than one might expect or want.
As The Returned brings viewers deeper into its fascinating rabbit hole, you'll be too damn on-edge and emotionally disoriented to care about answers. The story's visceral horror elements are executed with an in-your-face brutality, shocking the system that's been established as somber thanks to the show's predominantly meditative state. When the violence hits, it's no joke—prepare for disembowelment, cannibalism, hangings, and pint-sized, prepubescent murder victims, and never at times you'll expect those jolts. The Returned isn't dishonest, though. Its underlying terror is earned, largely due to Scottish band Mogwai's pulsating score, a mixture of eerie electronica and melancholic strings that promote the duality of unease and heartfelt sentiment.
Starting tonight, Sundance Channel will air The Returned's eight episodes every Thursday night through December 19. I strongly advise that you don't miss out, especially since, shocker, it's already being remade for American TV audiences, under the eyes of Lost co-creator Carlton Cuse, for A&E. It will be Cuse's second program for the network, following the successful Bates Motel, a fun, similarly "this small town is really twisted" show that proves Cuse knows what he's doing when Jack, Kate, and Sawyer aren't around. But he's not built for the kind of A+ entertainment that Fabrice Gorbet and his original The Returned team have pulled off here. I tore through its eight episodes in less than two days, and didn't want the story to end. Every character, all played excellently by Corbet's cast, struck a raw nerve; every moment of pain and anguish, rooted in one's inability to let go of the past, nabbed my sympathy; and those moments of sheer horror, dripping with blood and punctuated by Mogwai's haunting soundtrack, all creeped me out more than anything I've seen on The Walking Dead or American Horror Story.
The former, and I love the AMC ratings juggernaut for this, focuses on the gross-outs so much that it's more shocking than shivery; the latter, and all hail co-creator Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's mad genius and Ms. Jessica Lange's everything, is too over-the-top to truly unsettle. The Returned avoids those pitfalls by telling a realistic, human tale of grief in a superficially unreal world. The Walking Dead's titular ghouls are pure gut-munching fiction; The Returned's zombies are heartbreakingly real.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)