How do you follow up one of the best single seasons of television in the 21st century? Very slowly, if the glacial pace at which France’s The Returned has eked back onto the small screen is any indication. Nearly three years after its homeland debut—and two years since it made its way to SundanceTV in the U.S.—the program is back, for eight more episodes of haunting, elegiac mystery. And if the first several episodes are any indication, the show has lost none of its power to entrance. Taking its title to heart, The Returned has come back with nearly everything that made it so phenomenal the first time.
In case the passage of so much time (especially in television years, where such a lengthy pause feels like an epoch) has dimmed your memory, The Returned tells the story of a remote French town in the mountains, where the dead suddenly start showing up and returning to their homes, as though no time had passed at all. The living are unsure how to deal with it, but the arrival of their deceased loved ones sparks emotional crises, reveals long-buried secrets, and eventually triggers a standoff between the town’s denizens and those who no longer live there, in both senses of the word. In the season-one finale, a huge new group of unknown dead confronted all the townsfolk at (ostensibly) Christianity-based shelter The Helping Hand, where the dead’s demand to have the other living undead return with them provoked an assault that left the citizens without their returned, the town’s police force mysteriously vanished, and more questions without answers.
The show’s second season enters a very different television landscape than the one that greeted the first round of The Returned. ABC’s lackluster Resurrection tackled similar material, and A&E’s failed effort to replicate the show for English-speaking audiences had its plug pulled as well, meaning The Returned no longer has quite the same fresh and unexpected pop it previously did. Also, anyone who saw the first season now has expectations—and presumably high ones, at that. So how does the series deal with this weight of prior success? Much like HBO’s The Leftovers, it does so by refusing to grant any easy answers, instead doubling down on the mystery and misery that characterized much of the first eight installments.
The show picks up six months after the prior events, with the flood from the finale having driven away most of the town’s residents. Those who remain have kept silent about the returned, at least when it comes to the authorities who have entered the region to make sense of the disaster befallen these people. Leading the way is Berg, an inspector sent to suss out for government and military personnel how the flood could have happened, as there seems to be no failure on the part of the local dam. He immediately triggers alarms of “knows more than he lets on,” which sets the stage for just about every character currently lacking a pulse. Camille and her mother, along with Julie and Victor, Mrs. Costa, and the rest of our established living dead, are now residing… elsewhere, shall we say, but nearby. They’re surrounded by other undead, people we don’t know, but who are plenty menacing. Those left behind—Camille’s sister Lena, manipulative Helping Hand leader Pierre—are searching for a way to reach the dead. Adele, pregnant by undead Simon, kicks off the season with nightmares about her unborn child. All that was dark is even darker, what was hazy ever more unclear.
Anyone hoping to jump easily into season two will find it rough going, as The Returned makes no effort to reintroduce characters or stories from season one, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. (After season two’s elliptic and elusive beginning, returning viewers would be advised to revisit most of season one.) Not only that, but these new stories are all centered around new characters, just as last season based each installment on a different resident. In addition to Berg, we meet Milan, another citizen from 35 years before, whose menacing air and disturbance in seemingly psychic folks like Lucy lets us know he can’t be trusted. Similarly, Camille and Claire’s new home has left them isolated and afraid, as their new neighbors inspire more fear than friendship.
If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it’s that the pensive and downcast tone can become almost overwhelming. The Returned’s near-perfect first season effortlessly balanced the dark and haunted tone with the occasional warmth of human feeling. Everyone in season two’s first three episodes is becoming so unhappy, it tips the viewing experience periodically over the edge into upsetting, in a way the show previously avoided. That’s not to say it was ever a feel-good show—only the aforementioned Leftovers gets more dour—but the series never had too many terrible things happen to its characters at once without giving them respite or reason to hope. By the end of episode three (titled after yet another brand-new character, Morgane), almost everyone is miserable, and there doesn’t seem to be much hope for relief from the unrelenting gloom.
Thankfully, the show remains so brilliantly acted and written, and so masterfully shot, it’s never anything less than compelling. The Returned has never been about answers, though it’s not always about the questions, either. It is, in large part, about the nature of living with grief, and what it means to hold on to the past. Specifically, the way small, almost incidental moments in life can turn out to hold great weight. This is still not a show to watch while idly checking Twitter: Fleeting sidelong glances, tossed-off comments, flashes of people or places—they all potentially hold the key to entire future storylines. It’s not a spoiler to say that some questions from season one do get answered, albeit slowly, and rarely thoroughly. This is a series where the hushed wonderment of a quiet moment in the woods, or the silent gliding of a raft across the water, conveys more information than the massive exposition dump of your everyday American procedural. It may no longer be quite as unique a premise in the TV landscape, but there’s still nothing else like The Returned. This is rich and rewarding programming of the highest order.