Home Video Hovel: The Returned: The Complete First Season, by David Bax
Given its slot on deep basic cable, there’s probably a good chance you didn’t see the first season of French drama The Returned when it aired here in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel. I mean, you’re reading this website and obviously have taste but, still, there’s a pretty decent probability that you missed it. And then, even if you did watch it, it’s likely that you saw a muddy, standard-definition image; the kind that looks even worse than the SD you’re used to when displayed on an HD television. This is all to say that, even if you saw it, there’s a good chance you didn’t see it. Even the DVD I was lucky enough to get (it’s also out on Blu-ray this week) looks leagues better and only further strengthens the case for The Returned being one of the absolute best new dramas on TV.
In a mid-sized French town on a lake, people who have died start to come back. They all died at different times, anywhere from four to 35 years ago, and in different ways. But they come back just the same, all on the same day, without having aged a bit and with no memory of what happened or knowledge that they are dead. Other strange things start to happen too. The water level of the lake is dropping. It’s unclear whether that has anything to do with the gray water backing up into bathroom sinks or whether the animal carcasses found floating just beneath the lake’s surface are connected to the sudden increase in the fly population. But the true strangeness comes from the people. Those who were dead must adapt to the ways the world and they people in it they once knew have change. Those who remained alive must reckon with the memories of a long-buried pasts their returned friends and family have brought to their door.
From the winding road atop the towering dam that looms on the town’s horizon to the smallest bedroom in a remote cabin to kitchen and police stations and cars and, oh yes, basements with massive firearms stockades, every inch of The Returned is beautiful to look at. The yawning lake and the monolithic dam that made it give the series scope while the mist and the live-in rooms give it intimacy. Even though it’s a place where everyone seems to be awful sad, it’s still somewhere you’ll want to spend eight hours.
By the broadest definitions – meaning that it concerns people coming back from the dead – The Returned is a zombie story. Most of the time, though, it’s more of a closely observed human drama than any recognizable genre exercise. Still, that doesn’t mean it betrays its horror roots. There are elements of slasher films in the serial killer type who guts young women and eats strips of their stomach flesh. There are supernaturally creepy touches, such as the youngest of the returned, a boy who appears to have some sort of telekinetic powers/precognition/abilities to move through walls. Last but nowhere near the least is a liberal dose of body horror. Though these people originally come back unchanged, their bodies begin to rot, a phenomenon that is even more troubling when it begins to happen to people who never died.
If this were an American series (and it will be soon, by the way), the reaction to all this might run along the lines of “Holy fuck, what the fuck is going on, is this the end of the world,” type of behavior. The French, however, have no time for anything as gauche as all that. They spend their time pondering more internal and existential questions.
It may sound like I’m making fun but the measured approach is a cunning move. Instead of the operatic brinksmanship of something like Torchwood: Miracle Day, The Returned ropes you in from a deeper place, almost imperceptibly hooking you with its slow-burn pacing and dreadful beauty. Between the DVD on my shelf and the second season coming down the pike, I’ve got plenty of this series in my future. I can’t wait to go back.
Special features include an interview with the director and an essay by Scott Tobias all wrapped up in some pretty lovely packaging.