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The Returned (aka Les Revenants)

December 25, 2013

I still think The Revenants is an infinitely cooler title than The Returned.

This is a 2012 French series that recently aired on the Sundance channel.  My friend Roger Domian recommended this series and, given that his hit to miss ratio with me has been perfect, I decided to give it a look.  Before I get into the review itself I wanted to address a couple of points about how the show was packaged for the US audience which are completely removed from the content of the series itself.  First, is the title of the series itself.  The term revenant has, as far as I can determine, pretty much entered the English language.  I know that I have known what the term meant since I was a teenager myself, which would be at lot longer than I would like to admit.  So, changing the name of the series to The Returned is a bit of a puzzle to me.  Perhaps, and I’ll fully admit to be grasping at straws here, the people packaging the series though the name might be a bit too spoilery?  If this is the case, it still falls into the epic fail category as you would have to be functionally blind, in which case you would most likely not be watching television in the first place, to miss the actual title come up as you read the subtitled title.  The second issue is that Sundance seemed to be advertising the show as a zombie series which leads rather conveniently into the review proper.  My wife Diane is a pretty big zombie movie fan.  In fact, I hadn’t seen all that many zombie films myself until I started dating her.  Diane reads a number of zombie movie forums on the internet and, as a result of this, I tend to be the recipient of a lot of second hand reports about these forum discussions or, as I like to call it, collateral damage.  One thing I have learned about the American zombie fan crowd is that they like two things in a zombie flick; lots of physical horror, by which I mean blood and guts, and lots of action.  I feel that Sundance’s use of the zombie label to sell the series is a huge mistake as The Returned, to a large extent, has the opposite of both of these characteristics.

If you are still with me, I’ll begin the review itself now.  I’m going to apologize in advance if this review sounds a little more vague than usual as their are a ton of spoilers I’m going to try and avoid.  The story opens in a small rural mountain town in France whose name I’ll apologize for not remembering.  We first meet a pair of twin sisters named Camille and Lena who are supposed to be going on a school field trip that morning.  Lena feigns sickness so that she can instead stay home and have her first sexual experience with her sister’s boyfriend.  I should probably mention at this point they are identical twins.  Setting aside Lena’s ethics for the moment, it turns out to be a good move on her part as the bus goes off a cliff while trying to avoid hitting a young child standing in the middle of the mountainous road.  Camille, who was on the bus, is now seen climbing up the cliff and taking the long walk home.  She arrives and apologizes to her shocked mother Claire for being late.  Claire is shocked because it turns out that Camille actually died in the bus crash.  We quickly learn that a number of people who have died over the course of time have suddenly returned looking exactly like they did before their deaths.

From this point forward, The Returned covers the situation with the dead folks and their loved ones, as well as the loved one’s friend’s reactions to them.  Each episode focuses on one specific individual while still keeping us up to date on the others as well.  The storytelling is pretty much straight drama with a creepy overtone that is nicely highlighted by the exceptionally moody background score.  The real focus of the story, however, is the reactions of the survivors to this recent turn of events and, not all of them are as accepting or overjoyed as one might expect.  The impact to the social fabric of the town develops gradually over the course of the season as each family member with a returned loved one is hesitant to mention their situation as each at first, quite reasonably, thinks that their situation is unique.  As the news eventually becomes more public it is interesting to see how everyone reacts.  One individual named Pierre who runs the Helping Hand shelter welcomes them but, he is more of the exception than the rule.  The local police have a much harder time of it, especially when someone who their records say is dead assaults a local restaurant owner.  Thomas, the local police captain has even more on his plate in that he has a personal tie directly into one of the dead folks.  Pierre does too, now that I think about, but I guess his coping skills are a little better developed than Thomas.  A further subplot creating problems for the police is the local dam which may have a problem as the reservoir it is holding seems to be losing water at an alarming rate.  This is creating a bit of anxiety as three decades earlier a previous dam had failed which didn’t exactly win a lot of points with the local community.  Suffice it to say that the local police are in over their heads during the course of the series.

The overall tone of the The Returned is that of a ghost story more than a zombie apocalypse which is fine with me.  In fact, I found it a refreshing change from more standard zombie apocalypse fair like The Walking Dead.  The characters are all well realized and very believable people.  Some adapt and change over the course of a series of seemingly impossible events while others choose to live in varying degrees of denial instead.  Regular Fantastic Television readers will know that I’m not a big actor follower and, I frequently find myself questioning whether that tab really needs to exist or not.  Having said that I really wanted to point out that I was quite impressed with the young woman Yara Pilartz who played Camille.  She was able to deliver incredible statements with a simple turn of expression and, I think she will likely become a force to reckoned with as her career develops.

The Returned maintains the ghost story atmosphere by really amping up the creepiness factor.  One thing the series does that I really appreciated is that it doesn’t bother to explain all of the supernatural elements.  In some cases we are left to sort out for ourselves the nature of the returned dead folks.  I like this as I feel it adds to the horror.  In fact, this is probably why I find vampires to be somewhat boring as they are a known quantity.  As we know a good amount of their folklore, which includes their motivations and potential weaknesses, my mind flips over into scientist/engineer mode and I immediately begin focusing on them as problem to be dealt with as opposed to a scarey monster.  Sort of like if a pack of lions suddenly got lose in the neighborhood.  In the case of The Returned, it wasn’t clear exactly what if anything was different about them and, to some extent (with all due respect to the local police officials) how much of threat they really presented.

One final note is that I really love the title sequence as it features some pretty cool imagery.  If you decide to check out the series, you really want to pay close attention to this as it uses some really clever visual effects shots.  It is also a preview of some of the impressive cinematography used throughout the series as a whole.

The Returned is based upon a French film also titled Les Revenants.  The film was retitled domestically as They Came Back and I have not yet seen it myself.  This film was advertised as a zombie film which may be where Sundance got their brilliant advertising idea for the series.  However, from what I have read about the plot, the film seems to bear a greater resemblance to the recent BBC series In the Flesh which, given the film’s 2004 release date, may not be a coincidence.  If this is the case, the series is noticeably different than the film in that the focus is more on the spookier aspects of the situation than the whole re-integration of the dead folks back into society concept.   I would highly recommend The Returned to anyone who enjoys a good ghost story.  Again, it is not an action filled zombie kill fest but, it is definitely worth checking out especially given that a second season is due to arrive in 2014.


From → Actors, Reviews

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