The Walking Dead, With Brains
The fantastic French series The Returned began airing Thursday on the Sundance channel. To capitalize on its spooky Halloween premiere date and the huge ratings of The Walking Dead, it is being marketed as a “zombie” series, a misleading hard-sell sure to disappoint anyone who tunes into this delicate, mysterious, melancholy show hoping for lurching, rotting monsters.
The Returned, which was created by Fabrice Gobert and aired a year ago in France as Les Revenants, is about people who have come back from the dead, but they neither hanker for brains nor have no brains themselves, qualities I consider definitional for zombies. The previously deceased on The Returned appear normal, sentient, seemingly healthy, as troubled by the meaning of their reanimation as everyone else around them. Unlike with zombie stories, the problem with The Returned’s resurrected is not that they are undead — it is that they are all too alive.
The Returned begins as a bus carrying a class of middle school students goes over the side of a cliff. Four years later, one of the dead students, a red-haired girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz), looking exactly as she did on the day of her death, walks back into her family’s kitchen and makes herself a sandwich. She is perplexed that she just woke up in the mountains but otherwise unaware that time has passed or that her family has fallen apart.
When Camille’s mother (Anne Consigny) finds her in the kitchen, she does none of the things you might expect: She does not scream, she does not embrace her child, she does not call the police, she does not walk away imagining that she is hallucinating, she does not even smile. Instead, she nervously behaves as if everything is normal, moving and speaking carefully so as not to frighten her daughter away. Camille has only just appeared, but instantaneously her mother intuits that she can, now, horribly, be lost again.
Camille is not the only person who has returned to this small French city. Over eight episodes, each titled after a different character, various former citizens return. They have all died at different times but always by violent means. The people they come back to have always changed more than the dead themselves. A young man (the exceedingly handsome Pierre Perrier) who died the day of his wedding appears as his fiancée (a fragile Clotilde Hesme) is about to marry someone else. A small boy attaches himself to an isolated female doctor (Celine Sallette). A murderer comes back.
The dead are connected to the living in various graceful and complicated ways that I will not spoil for you, but suffice it to say that as stately as The Returned is, I definitely wanted to know what happened next. Meanwhile, the water level in the town is dropping dramatically, the lights keep flickering, none of the newly living are sleeping very much, and everyone keeps wondering if this is a sign of the resurrection — Jesus came back from the dead once, after all — or something less reassuring. “Are we sure I’m not a zombie?” Camille asks at one point, and it is the fact of her not zombie-ness that gives The Returned its deliciously shivery quality: Zombies are scary but familiar; who knows what Camille is?
The American version of “The Returned” would involve calling in the federal government, the CDC, the media and evangelists. But the first instinct of nearly everyone on “The Returned” - even the cops - is to keep secrets, to hide their formerly dead person, to keep them metaphorically buried so they can stay safe. The show has moments of profound love and tenderness - the story of Camille and her sister Lena (Jenna Thiam), and the young boy Victor and the woman who takes him in particularly got me - but they are all the more powerful for coming against a backdrop of malaise. The vast majority of characters have, after all, suffered a terrible loss and been grievously altered by it: Many of the living have already wanted to be dead themselves. “The Returned” is about being careful what you wish for, not because it will be more horrible than you expect, but because it will be more complicated, the size of the wish commensurate with its trouble.
“The Returned” is subtitled, which may turn some potential viewers off; I plead with you not to be one of them. “The Returned” is the second foreign show this year that I have flat-out fallen in love with (the other is “Borgen,” watch it, please) and I am convinced that subtitles had a little something to do with my ardor. Subtitles demand concentration. You cannot peruse the Internet or have a conversation or straighten up or play Candy Crush while watching. You have to sit there and read. If a subtitled show is bad, you’ll turn it off, but if it’s good, it envelops you more swiftly and wholly than the very good show in English you check your email while watching. “The Returned” is very good. Let it have your brains.
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Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.