When Sundance first broadcast the French television series Les Revenants (renamed The Returned for U.S. and U.K. audiences), there was nothing quite like it on American television. Detailing the eerie consequences that follow from the dead returning to life in a small French mountain town, it wasn’t a zombie show, nor a mere drama with a high-concept premise. It was a hybrid beast: an existential mystery, a Twilight Zone-style spooker, a family drama, and most of all an addictive delight. Haunting, spare, and impeccably shot, the series became an instant cult phenomenon. Critical plaudits followed, along with a Peabody and an International Emmy award for best drama series. So, you know, no pressure, A&E.
It’s hard to talk about the cable network’s English-language remake without acknowledging up front the reason this show exists: U.S. audiences don’t like reading subtitles. The Returned is an incredibly faithful redo of the original series (which was itself based on an earlier movie, They Came Back), right down to the idyllic small-town setting and a bevy of stars who bear an uncanny likeness to the original cast. Executive producers Carlton Cuse (who also penned the first episode’s teleplay) and Raelle Tucker (True Blood) are clearly big fans of the original, and have done their level best to import it wholesale for American audiences. But, as with any story involving bringing the dead back to life, the devil is in the details, and these details feel a bit strange.
The main difference comes in how much each show tries to leave unexplained. As might be expected, the American version of the show subtly but undeniably tries to fill in justifications for some of the mysterious elements of the narrative. Things kick off with a massive school bus crash, as we see a group of teenagers go plunging off the side of a mountain pass. Four years later, the community is still grieving, but moving on; the local support group still leans on each other for emotional aid, but people are having children and trying to carry on with their lives. Into this walks Camille (India Ennenga), a 16-year-old girl who died in the crash—she climbs back onto the road, wanders home, and tells her mom about the weird day she’s had as though no time has passed. Her parents Jack (Mark Pellegrino) and Claire (Tandi Wright) have since separated—he’s an inveterate drinker who owns the local watering hole, she’s still caring for their now 20-year-old daughter Lena (Camille’s twin, played by Sophie Lowe) and romancing the local head of a community care center and shelter—but Camille’s return prompts both shock and joy, and they attempt to reunite for their daughter’s benefit.
Stoking curiousity further, we see others return, but with no explanation—or even names—at first: a mop-topped twentysomething (Mat Vairo) tracking down his former fiancée, a woman (Michelle Forbes) who returns to her former house and crawls into bed beside her now-decades-older husband, and a small boy (Dylan Kingwell) who doesn’t seem to speak. Each of these people, we will learn, died at some point in the past. Each one is back, with no seeming rhyme or reason for their arrival. Why were they chosen to return? What caused their miraculous transformation into living people? The show isn’t planning to offer answers any time soon, and it’s not really the point. Like life, strange and upsetting things happen without warning or apparent cause; the important question is how people deal with the situation they’re presented with.
To its credit, the show stacks the deck in its favor with talent in front of and behind the camera. The cast is uniformly strong, with only Jeremy Sisto—usually a dependable presence—feeling a little out of place in the early going, though by the fourth episode he’s found the heart of his character, an unflappable do-gooder trying through sheer force of will to seem in control of the situation. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes for a deeply affecting mother of a small boy trying to rebuild her life—planning a new wedding and marriage just in time for her dead fiancé to appear on her doorstep. The whole cast reads like a who’s who of MVP character actors—Pellegrino, Agnes Bruckner, Aaron Douglas, and more—most of whom have done time in other shows that successfully balanced mystery and dread. And it’s a relief to report that the younger actors all carry their weight, with Ennenga and Lowe lending the twin sisters a beautifully fractured connection.
For a show with the thankless task of trying to recreate one of the more beautifully shot series of the past 10 years, The Returned looks good. The production design borrows overwhelmingly from its origin, with houses, bars, and even cemeteries all chosen for reasons having everything to do with thematic resonance to the characters they house. The direction in the first episode is a bit much, with enough Dutch angles to print a geometry textbook in the Netherlands. Material this odd is unsettling enough in its own right, and the second episode feels more sure-footed, thanks to Vincenzo Natali’s crisp and elegantly composed shots.
But whereas all these elements feel like talented musicians playing a faithful cover version of a great song, the series provokes interest of its own in the rare moments when it deviates from its source material. (Mogwai’s score for the original series is arguably one of the best pieces of music ever created for a television show, and the decision to jettison it in frankly of good but not great music from Zoe Keating and Joe Russo is puzzling.) In general, The Returned sticks firmly to the pre-established beats, and it can’t be faulted for this. When you’re working with a near-flawless template, why the hell would you mess with it? It’s the show’s biggest strength and greatest hindrance: This has all been done before.
Which also makes it hard to say much about The Returned, because a large part of the joy is discovering all the inexplicable little mysteries of the characters populating the show’s central town (it has a name, but it may as well be called “Not Twin Peaks, We Swear”). For those who haven’t seen the source material, this will be a fun, exciting journey, and you can be assured that you are in capable, firmly non-French, hands. For those who have, you’ve seen it all before, so the question becomes: How do you react when something you loved comes back, a little bit… different?