Fall 2013 Review: The Returned

13 Dec

A returned

The Returned is a French show, which first aired in the fall of 2012, but which recently made its stateside debut on the Sundance Channel, a channel which has already seen strong outings this year from Top Of the Lake and Rectify.

I love shows that are not easily characterized or categorized because that usually means that they are new and interesting and The Returned is both. It may be more clear what direction Returned is heading in after a few more episodes, and there are a few logical general options but I have absolutely no idea which and I’m glad.

Let’s take it from the beginning. Four years ago before the show’s present, a bus full of children embarking on a school trip topples over a cliff on a tricky piece of road, killing everyone on board. Or so it seems.

In the present, all is not well, and the people of the French town in which The Returned takes place are still grappling with the tragic events of four years prior. The parents are meeting in a regular group where they discuss a memorial being built in honor of the dead children. Tensions are still high, and some parents are dealing better than others. Clearly these adult relationships have been shaken up and some broken up by the events. Camille, one of the girls who died in the crash, seems to be the central figure in the show, and her parents have separated, while her twin sister, who feigned illness to get away from the trip is a fun-loving but possibly guilt-ridden 19-year old.

Camille, four years after she died, just picks up and walks into her house, the same age she was when she died, remembering nothing, and her mother is terrified, overjoyed, and above all confused, displaying the entire array of emotions one would expect to if faced with a similar situation. She calls Camille’s father, who naturally doesn’t believe her, until he sees Camille with her own eyes. He leans more toward the scared beyond belief side of the scale with his reaction.

Camille isn’t the only one who comes back; there’s also a young man seeking his girlfriend, who appears to have moved on without him, and there’s a young boy who returns to the apartment in which he believes he lives, leaving the current resident who doesn’t recognize the boy frustrated and confused.  People are returning from not just the bus crash but from earlier deaths as well. An old man is disturbed when his wife returns from the grave; he burns his house down and kills himself in reaction.

There’s a lot bound up here. There’s obviously supernatural and horror elements, as people coming back from the grave pretty much rules out reality or likely science fiction (yes, there’s a way to make this premise science fiction – but this isn’t that).

The story is intriguing on its own without any deeper themes, as it should be to keep the viewer involved. This is a slow, subtle supernatural show. There’s no huge opening event involved comparable to those in the bloated supernatural and sci-fi broadcast network shows like Lost, The Event, Revolution, or Terra Nova. It’s quiet and makes you figure out the questions, which are, to be fair, pretty obvious, rather than asking them extremely loudly. And those big questions are there just as they are in those other shows – namely – why are these people coming back, and since I’m not sure there’s a way to answer that satisfactorily, at least, what does this mean for the town?

There’s also, and this is what separates merely suspenseful shows which can certainly be enjoyable but depend heavily on satisfying answers and conclusions, with shows one tier greater, a deeper personal level to the drama beyond the plot, through strongly written characters, dialogue, and stories. The grappling of the parents with their tragedy reminds me of the all-too real situation faced by the people of Newton, Connecticut. Fissures break under that type of pressure and tragedy.

The big thematic question seemingly dealt with is in The Returned, at least through one episode, is how people respond to the return of something they had thought lost forever, and which they had made, if not peace with, at least some sort of resolution. They had survived by slowly but surely moving on. Early in the episode, during the parents’ support group, one parent makes that exact point; the tragedy is still poignant but things have gotten better – people simply can’t linger in that tragedy at those initial depths forever and live with themselves. Even in this episode everyone deals with the returned people in different ways; happiness, denial, confusion, fear, and any number of emotions in between and combining these.

This combination of mysterious, subtle suspenseful story with fascinating characterization and personal situations is a winning one, one episode in.

Will I watch the next episode? Yes. I’m curious. I’m not sold the show will be amazing yet, but very few shows can that confidently promise that in one episode. I am honestly curious where the show is going and what’s going on, and if a show can make me feel that way after its first episode it’s doing its job.

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