Judge Jason Panella returned, but it was Super Bowl Sunday, so nobody paid it any mind.
The past is not dead.
"'Love is stronger than death'? What a load of bull."
Facts of the Case
In a village in the French Alps, the impossible has happened: people who have been dead for years have returned to their loved ones. These revenants show no signs of their death and hold no memories of their passing. They're not craving flesh, and they look and act like normal people. Teenager Camille (Yara Pilartz, 17 Girls), for instance, died in a tragic bus accident three years ago, and she returns home as if nothing happened. But the past three years have torn her family apart—her parents Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot, Sarah's Key) and Claire (Anne Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) separated after the accident, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now older and still distraught over Camille's death.
Camille isn't the only one to come back. There are others, including Simon (Pierre Perrier, American Translation), who returns ten years after dying on his wedding day to find his fiancée Adèle (Clotilde Hesme, Mysteries of Lisbon) preparing to marry someone else; and Victor (Swann Nambotin), a quiet child who inexplicably begins to follow around nurse Julie (Céline Sallette, Rust and Bone). The return of the dead, along with the number of odd phenomena that follow in their wake, raise a host of questions…questions that might not have an answer.
Loosely based on the 2004 film They Came Back, the first season of The Returned features eight hour-long episodes.
:Let's be clear: The Returned (original French title: Les Revenants) isn't a "zombie" show, at least using the common understanding of what that word entails. The dead come back to life, sure, but aside from that this show has almost nothing in common with something like The Walking Dead. Trying to stack these shows against each other does a disservice to both of them. If anything, The Returned is a lot like David Lynch's Twin Peaks—both are set in small, remote communities and feature increasing weirdness that binds the characters together. And like Twin Peak, The Returned is fairly stingy where answers are concerned.
While a lot of modern zombie horror acknowledges or comments on how the undead used to be people, The Returned is rooted almost entirely in this notion. The inhabitants of the show's village mourned their deceased loved ones and friends. Most managed to move on, like people do. But what happens if the dead come back? How do people react, especially when enough time has gone by for people to grieve properly? How do things change? And how do the living dead feel about this? They didn't ask to come back, after all. This last point is driven home during one of the season's best scenes: after spending a day unwittingly freaking out her parents, Camille realizes the nature of her new existence when she first sees her now-three-years-older twin sister. Camille's responding breakdown is both heart-rending and horrifying because this reunion shouldn't be happening in the first place.
With a plethora of scenes like this, is The Returned even horror, then? I think so, though the show is never truly scary. Instead, it keeps a near-constant eerie tone going, which is impressive. The sense that something is wrong is always present, explicit or not. Sometimes this manifests in the outright weird—the town's reservoir inexplicably begins to drain, for instance, revealing increasingly unnerving things—but it usually stems from the show's basic premise. There are people who died and are now breathing and talking and acting like nothing happened. The Returned does get in a few traditionally spooky scenes, mostly with some wonderfully unnerving episode-ending cliffhangers. It's just that the majority of the show favors atmosphere and mood over shocks, a wise move for the sort of vibe that show creator/writer/director Fabrice Gobert (Lights Out) seems to be going for.
In case you're wondering if there's actually a story at the heart of this show, the answer is "yes." All of the returned characters have their own set of tales, and as the season progresses the stories begin to overlap and intertwine. That said, things take some time to get moving, and even then The Returned moves glacially. There are lots of scenes of people not talking to each other, and lots of lingering shots of the lonely, creepily beautiful countryside of the French Alps. This is a beautiful looking show, folks. While I love slowly paced stuff like this, I know it'll drive others batty.
The show also doesn't provide many answers for the questions raised over the eight episodes, so if you like your loose ends tied up nicely at the close of a season, this might not be the show for you. But then I think this show isn't about the mysteries themselves, but about the people encountering them. The cast is across-the-board fantastic, with hardly any sour notes. It's hard to pick favorites in this case, but Consigny, Hesme, and Sallette probably fit the bill.
And speaking of no sour notes, the soundtrack deserves a mention. The show's producers approached Scottish noise masters Mogwai to score the show. With only a few translated scripts to work with, the band banged out some tunes with the hopes that they'd fit the bill. They did, so much so that the creative team played the songs non-stop during the filming of the season. This is one of those rare cases where the soundtrack and show work so well together that they're inseparable. It's a brooding, often uneasy score that's more in line with some of Mogwai's more recent studio releases, but the band lets it rip in a few key scenes.
Music Box Films does a nice job with their two disc Blu-ray release of The Returned: The Complete First Season. The show really takes the time to its visuals speak on their own terms, and it helps to have such a sharp-looking 1.78:1/1080p transfer. Detail is consistently sharp, and while the show leans toward the side of the color timing spectrum, the occasional flash of color really helps to show how nice everything looks. The French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is great too, though incredibly subdued. The surround track picks up nuances wonderfully, and kicks in when needed with the Mogwai soundtrack. While the set doesn't include any video supplements, it comes with a nice booklet that features the essay "Village of the Damned," by critic Scott Tobias (of The Dissolve and the AV Club) and an interview with Gobert and producer Caroline Benjo.
The first season of The Returned was the best show you didn't see in 2013. Fix that.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
Review content copyright © 2014 Jason Panella; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.