IN TWEET: SUNDANCE CHANNEL SENSATION “THE RETURNED” IS NOW STREAMING ON NETFLIX. IT’S CREEPY, RIVETING AND BRILLIANT.
ABC finally scored a ratings hit with the debut of RESURRECTION (click here for my review). Too bad only a tiny fraction of the 13 million viewers who tuned in are aware that its premise is almost identical to the vastly superior French television series LES REVENANTS (THE RETURNED). Though the stateside outing is not a re-format, comparisons between the two are unavoidable. Now streaming on Netflix, THE RETURNED is a mini-masterpiece .
The dead springing back to life has become a hot pop-culture meme thanks in no small part to the juggernaut that is THE WALKING DEAD. In THE RETURNED, we get an expertly crafted revisionist take on elements of the zombie genre. That means no rotting flesh, no brain chomping and no maggoty walkers. Here, when deceased residents of a small mountain town suddenly come back to life, they do so in human form. They haven’t aged and are initially unaware that they flatlined. Sure, they eat…a lot, in fact (a neat bit of backstory intrigue that also pops up in RESURRECTION) but their preference is for sandwiches and other non-human fare.
Within the first few minutes of the opening hour, you know THE RETURNED isn’t going to pull any punches. A tour bus full of happy young kids plummets over the side of a mountain road, killing everyone on board. Four years later, the parents of the dead students gather for what we assume are regular meetings designed as much to deal with their grief as they are to approve a memorial to those lost in the accident. These initial scenes set up enough conflict and drama for several series. They also do a flawless job of introducing a large cast of characters.
Enter Camille (an exceptional turn by young Yara Pilartz). She was on the ill-fated bus and is the first of the returned we meet. As she is reunited with her shocked and shattered parents, her story unfolds. At the same time, we fan out into the town and gradually realize other characters have also come back from the great beyond. The reactions to the unexpected reappearance of dead family and friends range from shock and joy to denial and sheer terror. It is these visceral and emotionally resonant scenes that set THE RETURNED apart from typical scripted dramas. The show casts its spell quickly and draws us in before we realized just how dark and terrifying things are going to become.
One of the most effective and shocking scenes in the opener takes place in a traverse tunnel that we have already seen two characters walk through without incident. It’s an almost brilliant visual device that lures us into the same false sense of security as Lucy, the young waitress who is stabbed to death in the same tunnel. The attack happens without warning and is made even more horrifying by the way the killer whispers words of comfort to Lucy as he repeatedly drives the knife into her. It’s also our first red flag that this series has much bigger and uglier fish to fry. Could a serial killer be among the recently resurrected?
THE RETURNED is gorgeous to look at. The lush cinematography manages to enhance the creepy atmospherics in a way that evokes a painterly style without being pretentiously artsy. Colors are rich, dense and saturated but striking where and when a visual punch is needed. It makes for a mesmerizing and memorable viewing experience.
The large cast is a wonder to behold, with especially fine work from Pilartz, Anne Consigny (as Camille’s mother Claire), Frederic Pierrot (Claire’s estranged husband, Jerome) and Jean-Francois Sivadier (as Pierre, Claire’s current boyfriend and the local religious zealot). These are actors, young and old, performing at the top of their game.
Unlike the “rock no boats” RESURRECTION, THE RETURNED deals with a raft of difficult topics with unflinching honesty. Love, life, death, sex and religion are front and center and important drivers to a rich and complex set of intertwined storylines. It’s testimony to the quality of the writing that THE RETURNED manages to deal with so many heady issues while also getting under your skin and scaring you in very real and, sometimes, very intellectual ways. The series is so good, it could be just the ticket to cure that special someone in your life of subtitle-phobia.
RONTHINK GRADE: A+