Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Grief isn’t always an emotion. Sometimes, it’s an ever-present, never-seen traveling companion, a predator stalking a hiker under the dark cover of the woods. As the hiker moves along the trail and the predator keeps its distance, the monster almost becomes familiar and beloved, a tether to a bleaker, inescapable reality. To grieve is to get better at holding these things in your peripheral vision, to understand that looking directly at them might mean being devoured whole.
Sundance’s new French import, The Returned (Les Revenants in its country of origin), succeeds so tremendously because it understands all of the above—and finds an ingenious horror metaphor with which to depict it. A loose adaptation of a French film of the same name, the series centers on a small village that becomes home to five former corpses. Now living again, they have no memory of where they were in the time they were deceased—indeed, no knowledge they were dead at all. A teenage girl, a mysterious young boy, a woman who’s been dead for decades, a cold-hearted criminal, and a groom who perished on his wedding day return from the grave, expecting at first to pick up where they left off. Instead, they find that time has passed and those they loved grew older.
The Returned adroitly straddles the line between “mystery show” and “horror series” as well as any program of this sort since Lost. In the first episode, “Camille,” larger mysteries about why these people have returned to life and the circumstances behind their deaths—and the very odd fact that a nearby reservoir’s water level is plummeting—swirl around the characters, both living and dead. The end of that premiere interweaves a number of beautifully accomplished shocks and big questions, all the while revealing just how good this show’s casting department is.
From there, the series has bought itself enough space to meander. It understands that true horror often involves a growing sense of unease, and it exploits that as much as possible, getting weirder and more off-kilter with every episode. Yet it never becomes an especially plot-bound series. The mysteries are what they are, and the show tosses a few bones to those who desire a straightforward narrative. But at almost every turn, The Returned chooses to highlight two things that set it apart from the many other series in TV’s recent horror boom: mood and emotion.
The mood develops exquisitely from the first frame. Filmed in the French Alps, the series’ locations have a unique look, one that utilizes the outdoor surroundings and barren outposts of such an isolated town. Though it possesses several moving dialogue scenes, The Returned is never afraid to go silent for long periods of time—to simply observe its characters, both living and dead, adjusting to what their lives have become. The series boasts some haunting imagery: a church steeple poking out above a placid lake’s surface; a young woman bathed in a pool of light, waiting for something horrible to happen. An excellent, brooding score by post-rock outfit Mogwai adds to the gloom.
Yet it’s emotion that carries the day here. In its finale—one of the year’s best TV episodes—The Returned reveals how skillfully it has developed a whole community of characters, then evokes how much more fierce the bonds might become between, say, a mother and a child reunited after death. As the series wears on, it reveals itself to be a deeply moving one about motherhood—planned, unexpected, and gained through circumstance. Though it is a series with a great many strong male characters, the beating heart of the program is its women, who adapt and evolve and refuse to give up, even when assaulted by a killer in a dark alley or discovering a long-dead daughter poking around in her old bedroom.
That finale also reveals just how beautifully the titular returned operate as a metaphor for grief and loss. The series makes a fuller tilt into actual horror as it goes along, with most of the tropes expected from a story about the dead returning to life getting at least a nod. But it clings so strongly to the emotional through-line that it can never get lost. To lose a daughter or a brother doesn’t mean one stops being a parent or a sibling. It simply means that the relationship shifts and warps to accommodate the blank space. The Returned celebrates the possibilities of resurrection, yes, but it also warns how all-consuming grief can be, how impossible it is to keep your eyes on the trail when there’s something else lurking in the dark.