Why You Should Be Watching the French TV Miniseries The Returned

Photo: JEAN-CLAUDE LOTHER/Sundance Channel

Sundance Channel’s French import miniseries The Returned (a.k.a. Les Revenants) hits its halfway point tonight with its fourth episode. The show is an eerie, dreamy spin on back-from-the-dead stories; one day, long-dead residents of a small town in France start reappearing . A teen girl who’s been dead for four years shows up like nothing has happened. A bad-boy misanthrope who died suspiciously ten years earlier — on his wedding day — returns and still loves his betrothed. All the while, the town’s reservoir is at levels it shouldn’t be, and a local serial killer appears to be back in action after years of dormancy. Up is down! What’s wet is dry! What died now lives!

The first three installments are available, subtitled, on iTunes (the pilot is free; you have no excuse). And a rep for Sundance says that the network will air catch-up marathons in December, so perhaps just set your DVR for then and make a wish. Les Revenants is a terrific show, absorbing and disorienting in all the best ways. It’s definitely not anything close to a “zombie show,” which is how some referred to the show prior to its premiere here. I like the way the show plays with corporeal needs (eating, sleeping, being touched) in contrast to spiritual needs (being seen, being remembered) and doesn’t prioritize one over the other. None of the show’s central mysteries feel cheap or corny (“what’s in that box?!”), but rather loose and amorphous (what is the nature of death?). The performances are great, as are the subtle peeks into French home decor. But what I like most about it is that it’s about grief.

I love a grief show. I love Dead Like Me in part because it’s a coming-of-age story that’s about loss, not romance. I loved Six Feet Under, particularly how it rejected the idea that grief is somehow ennobling. The early seasons of Rescue Me were about a guy drowning in his loss, in pain so severe that he hallucinated his dead friends. I don’t love these shows because I’m a glutton for punishment or a TV sadist. (I think.) I like them because I like seeing true human experiences in the shows I watch. Seeing a moment or feeling from one’s life reflected back through art is empowering and comforting; it makes me feel like my experiences are truer and realer because they’re not mine alone. Those shows, and Les Revenants too, let grief be a consistent part of the human condition, a part that waxes and wanes, but one that deeply shapes people.

Of course plenty of shows have characters die. But usually the show and the rest of the characters have their weepy weepies and then move on, often never mentioning the deceased again. (Sorry, everyone who got killed off on ER.) That is not how grief has ever operated in my life. Les Revenants has a spooky side, certainly, but the series acknowledges that for the surviving characters, the loss of their loved one is a wound that never really heals. Camille’s parents, of course, fantasized about her coming back, even knowing how ridiculous that is. Adele has always felt “haunted” by her deceased fiancé, and she initially mistakes his return as her own psychosis. They’re not living every day in a misery cloud, certainly, but the depth and rawness of their grief is still there. It’s not a hole that gets filled in; it’s a hole with a shoddy trap door on top. Mostly you can walk across it okay, but every so often, you fall in. Again.

When I watch The Walking Dead, I wonder why people aren’t sadder in general on that show, given the losses they’ve endured. I’m sometimes surprised that no one on Grey’s Anatomy mentions George anymore. I want Joan to talk about Lane at some point on Mad Men, because she would in real life. Les Revenants captures maybe the most interesting thing a surreal show can do: be utterly, totally real.

Why You Should Be Watching The Returned