Sundance Channel Has Yet Another Winner In Zombie Drama 'The Returned'
As the year begins winding down to a close, it appears there may suddenly be another new series worthy of recognition as one of the year's best: The supernatural chiller “The Returned,” which debuted this week on Sundance Channel. Unlike “Top of the Lake” and "Rectify" -- two outstanding shows that debuted on the network earlier this year and will likely turn up next month on dozens of year-end ten-best lists -- this is not a Sundance original. It's actually a French production (and it is subtitled, which for some reason only adds to its disturbing mood).
It's accurate to label “The Returned” as the flip side of AMC's supremely grisly shocker “The Walking Dead.” “Returned” also tells the stories of people mysteriously returning from the dead, in this case years after their passing, but here the deceased return exactly as they were and largely unaware that they have been missing for so a long time. They know something is off, but they don't know exactly what is wrong. Nor do the seismically rocked loved ones they make their way back to -- or the viewers, for that matter.
What makes “The Returned” so fascinating, and also so deeply unsettling, is that these walking dead or reanimated individuals don't look any different than they did at the time of their deaths. They haven't rotted. They have not aged. They just show up out of nowhere, acting as they always did and ready to resume their lives in the small French mountain town they call home. The emotional impact their arrivals have on the people they return to drives much of the drama, at least at the start of this eight-episode series.
As joyous as one might think it would be to have a deceased (or presumed dead) loved one return happy and healthy and acting as if nothing bad had ever happened, “The Returned” makes clear from its very first sequence that the sudden jolt people experience when the dead return is anything but wonderful. It plays on every emotion they have, often leaving them unable to process what's happening. It isn't enough to say that everything about the situation feels completely wrong -- it is also totally creepy. So is the overriding sense that sooner or later something absolutely awful is going to happen.
All we know after the first episode is that the returns of these deceased individuals seem to follow a regional power surge of some kind that briefly leaves everyone in the dark. Everything stops, as happens when the power goes out, and then the lights come back on and everybody gets back to the business of their lives -- until the dead start showing up looking none the worse for wear.
There is very little violence or gore on display, at least in the first episode, which also sets “The Returned” apart from other zombie fare. The only blood and guts come in a scene involving a vicious serial killer who shows up in town when the dead start walking, though it is not immediately clear whether he is reanimated, too. (I’m guessing he is.) A scene in the first episode in which the killer slowly stabs a young woman to death is so horrifying in its intimate detail that it might have people re-evaluating what passes for violence and murder on American television. The pain the victim feels is rarely the focus of such scenes. “The Returned” doesn't pull those punches.
The arrival of this mesmerizing series gives Sundance Channel a last blast in a year that has seen it unexpectedly rise to the top tier of cable programming powerhouses. But the debut of “The Returned” on American television may be the start of something even bigger. A&E is developing a version of this series and ABC at midseason will debut a drama with a startlingly similar central concept, “Resurrection.” I thought “Resurrection” was the best pilot produced by any broadcast network this season and was surprised that ABC pushed it off until next year. I like to think it would have fared better than the already cancelled “Lucky 7” and the ought-to-be-gone-soon “Betrayal,” but who can say? Autumn certainly seems to be the season for such stuff.