Review

A&E's eerie 'The Returned' veers far from usual zombie tale

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
What would you do if a loved one came back from the dead? A&E's #TheReturned raises intriguing questions

In all its recent tinkering with Emmy rules and regs, the television academy forgot to include a new category for one of the fastest-growing subgenres: best American adaptation of a non-American television program.

Carlton Cuse's remake of the French zombie series "Les Revenants" for A&E would certainly be a contender.

For the record, I am not absolutely certain the world needed an American remake of "Les Revenants" (The Returned), which premiered here in 2013 on SundanceTV to all sorts of rave reviews. It was in French, with subtitles, which may be a turnoff to some viewers.

But A&E's "The Returned," which premieres Monday night, brings the story to a wider audience and is a far better adaptation than, say, the regrettable "Gracepoint" or "Low Winter Sun." It's also much better than the similarly themed "Resurrection" (which is based on the 2013 Jason Mott novel "The Returned," which apparently has no relation to either series of the same name; they are based on the 2004 French film "They Came Back.")

Cuse remains faithful to "Les Revenants" in narrative and tone. And though his version is not quite as eerie and enigmatic as the French version, it's still pretty dang eerie and enigmatic, particularly for those watching the story unfold for the first time.

In a small, isolated and geographically idyllic mountain town, the dead begin to return, initially as baffled and horrified as their living loved ones.

It begins with Camille (India Ennenga), a teenage girl killed in a tragic school bus accident. With no memory of the accident, she returns home as if it were the same day.

But four years have passed and they have not been easy ones for her family. Her parents, Claire (Tandi Wright) and Jack (Mark Pellegrino), have separated, each remaining defined by grief, while Camille's twin sister Lena (Sophie Lowe) is a young woman now, grown hard and angry over her loss and what she sees as her role in it.

Joy, shock, gratitude and disbelief are just a few of the things they feel upon Camille's return. Although Lena is initially horrified, the fear Claire and Jack feel is for Camille's safety. Even when Peter (Jeremy Sisto), the head of their grief counseling group (and Claire's lover), proclaims Camille a miracle, the family's instincts are to keep that miracle hidden.

But Camille is not the only member of the newly reanimated to make her way out of the wilderness. As she prepares for her wedding, Rowan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sees Simon (Mat Vairo), who was killed on the day of their wedding 10 years ago. Driving home, Dr. Julie Han (Sandrine Holt) sees a young boy alone at a bus stop; minutes later he comes to her apartment and silently presents himself. She has no idea who he is, but takes him in. Others return with more dramatic results.

What appears at first to be a contemplation of mortality and the danger of answered prayers quickly becomes something more chilling. We see how many of the returned met their deaths and there appears to be a pattern rising, along with the black water that begins filling sinks and bathtubs.

Also, all of them are very, very hungry.

The question is, for what? It doesn't appear to be human flesh, but with a few notable exceptions, stories that involve the resurrected dead rarely turn out well for the living.

Shot in a moody, muted palette and scored in a minor key, "The Returned" is not promoting a sunny side of zombies. Instead, it appears to be raising questions along with the dead, about life, love, responsibility, transformation and forgiveness.

An unnerving and compelling series in its own right, it also offers a primer on how to Americanize a tale without ruining it. The pace of "The Returned" is a bit faster, the dialogue a tad more abundant, the artistic framing still lives less so than in its progenitor, but it is still hypnotic quality in its subtlety.

Especially given the subject matter, the performances are restrained and breathtakingly believable, even within the fictional limits of a town in which, apparently, there is no media, social or otherwise.

"What would you do if your beloved dead returned?" this show asks. Going public, much less digital, is not part of the answer.

But then most of life occurs privately, in moments small and quiet. Most turning points do not involve shootouts or literate monologues, which is something television, with its desperate need for attention, too often forgets.

"The Returned" is here to help you remember.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The Returned'

Where: A&E

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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