It’s a show about the dead coming back to life that is itself a reincarnation of another, slightly spookier series. French series Les Revenants has returned as the American adaptation The Returned, and like anything that comes back from the dead, something is just a little bit off. Les Revenants is excellent (and currently available on Netflix), and The Returned is good — just not quite as good as its predecessor.
Our story is set in a small town in Washington State. Small in population, perhaps, but large in terms of dazzling architecture (I think my favorite character is the Winship family’s house). Also large in terms of mysteries: The dead are coming back, and not in growling, decomposed form, but rather just as they were the day they died. Camille Winship, for example, was a grumpy tween on a school trip whose bus crashed. And now, four years later, here she is, making a sandwich while her stunned, bereaved mother looks on in both joy and slight horror. Simon was on his way to his wedding when he died ten years ago; his fiancé is about to marry someone else, and she’s convinced herself that he’s a hallucination. There’s a little boy who refuses to speak, and he just kinda seems like a back-from-the-dead little dude.
How is this happening? Why? Is it permanent? Is it dangerous? The Returned is strong on mood and light on answers, and that is enough to carry the show, at least early on. Haven’t we all entertained that magical thinking part of our brains, bargaining with whatever powers to bring that person back, even just for one more afternoon, to see them once more, and talk, and never let go this time? The show captures grief almost as well as the original does, depicting its orbital pull, where, no matter how far away you get, you always loop back somehow. We’re never really free of our losses, it’s just that the worst days get less bad and further apart.
It’s not just about eeriness and mourning, though. There’s a more violent, sinister side to The Returned, too, in the form of a possible serial killer whose attacks have resumed. There’s also occasional disturbing violence among our townsfolk, including some of the Returned. Plus, come on, I’ve seen a TV show before. You don’t cast Mark Pellegrino to play the all-wholesome hero, nor do you cast Jeremy Sisto as someone with zero secrets. I don’t know how or if the show will diverge from the French version in terms of these characters, but I’d be surprised if my feelings of trepidation were completely misplaced.
That sense of impending doom is compounded by everyone’s not totally credible lack of urgency. You found a little boy and just took him home? Call the damn police, lady! Dead people are coming back to town, and no one … I don’t know, takes a picture? The immediate, unanimous consensus is, “Welp, better keep this a total secret!” That’s where the show loses me a little bit, with the decision that every character sees this miracle — what others might see is truly the most wonderful miracle anyone could ever experience — as something dangerous, or sad, or even vaguely incriminating. It’s a tough choice dramatically, too, since everyone turns inward about everything, and on a show with already scant dialogue, pensive stares aren’t quite enough to fill in what all our characters are thinking. (In the original, somehow it was.)
Mostly they’re probably, “Holy effing shit, people are coming back to life, whuuuuuut!” That’s what I would be thinking, and it’s to The Returned’s credit that there’s enough room for anything else to exist in these characters’ lives. Being defined by loss is a tricky thing: Yes, those are some of the deepest scars I carry with me, the list of the worst days of my life, and there’s no version of me that exists without them. And yet that’s not everything, I’m not just these absences, and my grief is merely among the experiences that have defined me, certainly not the only one, and not always the most important one. I’m talking about myself here, but also everyone on The Returned, where we only really bother meeting surviving characters because they’re connected to reanimated ones. The characters are conflicted about their identities — am I always just going to be “that dead girl’s sister”? — and the show itself doesn’t do much better at revealing them — er … she’s not just the dead girl’s sister, she also … is … moody.
The original Les Revenants (well, “original” — it’s based on a movie of the same name, but with different outcomes) captured a Freudian kind of uncanniness, a here-but-not-here unheimlich sense of instability. Watching the American version filled me with the same feeling — not because the show was depicting it, but because I was the one experiencing that sensation. You’re the same but not the same, show. You’re a little more obvious about things, a little blunter, a little less stirring, and a little more like a regular TV show. You’re back, but not how I remember you.