In the opening sequence of extraordinary French thriller The Returned, a yellow butterfly, pinned and placed in a display case, mounted on a wall, unexpectedly flutters back to life and smashes through its glass prison. It’s an enigmatically beautiful moment, and an apt metaphor for the overall premise of The Returned (which premieres Oct. 31 at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel), a collision between the worlds of the living and the dead that leaves both shattered.
Created by Fabrice Gobert (who shares directing duties with Frédéric Mermoud) and based on a 2004 film of the same name, The Returned (in French, Les Revenants) is unlike anything else on television, on either side of the Atlantic, an atmosphere-laden and character-driven drama that deftly blends supernatural horror, psychological terror, and familial tragedy. (If you’d like some sort of signposts into this unknown territory, I’d argue that The Returned is The Walking Dead multiplied by The 4400 plus Twin Peaks and divided by In the Flesh and, say, Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply.)
The series — which has been renewed for a second season that will air in November 2014 on Canal+ in France —depicts what happens when the dead return to a French village, seemingly unaged, and the lives of those forever altered by the death of a loved one and their return. (You might be asking, Isn’t this similar to that ABC midseason show Resurrection, which is based on Jason Mott’s novel The Returned and is about what happens to a town when the dead return? While both have resounding similarities — the dead when they come back haven’t aged and seem to be alive; there is a seemingly mute boy at the center of each show; the time between death and return is different for each character, etc. — they aren’t directly related. An English language version of Les Revenants is already in the works as well for U.K. television under the aegis of Shameless and State of Play creator Paul Abbott.)
Each of the eight episodes that comprise The Returned’s first season focuses on the death of a specific character: morose teen Camille (Yara Pilartz), who was killed three years earlier in a horrific bus accident that killed 37 of her classmates as well and splintered her grieving family; musician Simon (Pierre Perrier), who mysteriously dies on his wedding day, leaving behind a pregnant fiancée in Adèle (Clotilde Hesme); eerily silent child “Victor” (Swann Nambotin), whose presence seems to presage doom and who has an ability to conjure a person’s darkest fear. Oh, and did I mention that one of the dead is a cannibalistic serial killer named Serge (Guillaume Gouix) who likes to repeatedly stab women in a subterranean tunnel and then eat their internal organs? One of his victims, stoic nurse Julie (Céline Sallette), survived Serge’s final attack seven years earlier before he seemingly vanished, though she has been haunted by the notion that she could come face to face with him again. Especially when a local waitress, Lucy Clarsen (Ana Girardot), is stabbed in the same tunnel as Julie…
Those reunited with one of these returnees react in vastly different and unexpected ways. Camille’s rebellious sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is terrified when she sees her dead sister, with whom she shared a deeper connection than the average siblings. Léna, angry and angsty, suffers from what seems like a crippling guilt at having survived the accident (she stayed home from the class field trip that day); Camille and Léna’s parents, Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), have split in the wake of the tragedy, with Claire holding out hope that she would one day see Camille again. While the early episodes focus on how Camille’s family comes to grips with her seeming resurrection, the action ripples outwards to draw in other collisions: that between Victor and Julie or doomed lovers Simon and Adèle. The latter, now a single mother, is set to marry Thomas (Samir Guesmi), the captain of the local gendarmerie, who just happens to be keeping a possibly unstable Adèle under constant surveillance in her own home.
The entire town seems rife with tragedy and loss, and the mysteries at play here are vast and numerous. Just why these specific people have returned is unclear, as is the nature of these resurrections themselves. What caused the dead to return to life, appearing as they did in the seconds before their deaths? Is it divine intervention or something sinister? (Some within the town look towards Christ’s resurrection for answers, relying on faith; others see these revenants as a sign of the end times.) Why did they return now? Why are the returnees so hungry? Why can’t they sleep? Just what is going on at the dam, which appears to be draining? Why are there dead mountain goats floating in the water? What’s with the power fluctuations? The black water? And just what is lurking under the lake?
Over the course of these eight magnificent and poignant episodes — capturing some of the most beautifully eerie scenes ever on television — many of these questions are answered, while new mysteries appear in rapid succession, transforming a portrait of families gripped by heartache into something terrifying and inexplicable. This is not a zombie drama on the level of, say, The Walking Dead, but the two shows do share some thematic overlaps, particularly by the time the first season concludes. And it begs questions of the AMC drama as well: What if the walkers had their human personalities and, er, skin? Would they be welcomed with open arms? As for these revenants within The Returned, would their loved ones greet them so readily if they were decaying and hungering for human flesh?
Instead, these returnees are something akin to the European folklore tradition of revenants or the Buddhist belief in the concept of the “hungry ghost,” trapped between the material and the spiritual worlds and suffering from insatiable physical desires. Here, the revenants’ deaths were tragic and violent, leaving both them and their loved ones with deeply unresolved issues. Having confronted death, it’s questionable whether the victims’ families — and, most especially, Serge’s terrorized victim Julie — are truly living. Their return is both a second chance at life and a painful reminder of what they’ve lost, seeing that the world has left them behind, in a way. They hunger, they love, they hurt.
They cannot, however, be killed.
Revealing glimpses of the past in flashbacks and ricocheting across town to focus on different characters, The Returned is a groundbreaking and precise piece of television, cinematically lush and emotionally rich, positioning its terrors and its pleasures side by side. Like Twin Peaks before it, The Returned exposes the seedy underbelly of a seemingly idyllic town and the long buried secrets of its inhabitants; likewise, there’s a sense that the show itself is a beautiful nightmare, helped along by unforgettable imagery and a haunting soundtrack (courtesy of Glaswegian post-rock band Mogwai). The result is a gorgeously realized and innately creepy metaphysical drama, one that draws you in close… and then knifes you in the gut and leaves you for dead.
The Returned begins Oct. 31 at 9 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.