"The Returned," a deep, mysterious and remarkable new series that begins Halloween night on Sundance Channel, is being pitched as having something to do with zombies. And to the extent that several of its characters are dead and yet moving among the living, I suppose that it does.
But they are also living with the living, and talking with them, and eating with them (and not eating them), and even sleeping with them. (Though they do not sleep.) They are very much as they were when they checked out and, except for a blank spot surrounding their demise, reappear with their memories, faculties and human feelings intact. They do not limp or growl; they are not contagious. Still, their presence makes its own kind of trouble.
Set in an alpine town small enough that everyone seems to know one another yet big enough to hide in, it is miles away, in every way, from the squelching video-game carnage and post-apocalyptic tropes of "The Walking Dead" and its myriad predecessors and kin. One is tempted to say that it is very French — first, because it is, in fact, French. Originally titled "Les Revenants," it was adapted by Fabrice Gobert from Robin Campillo's quite different 2004 film of that name, translated then as "They Came Back."
But there is also, in the Gallic vein, a lot of talking — which does not necessarily mean communicating — and nuanced attention to emotional states, and to the space around and between the characters, and the sort of subtle visual acuity that makes a film seem both artful and actual, extraordinary and ordinary. The pace, set to a sympathetic score by the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, is slow in a way that we still think of as "foreign." Violence, when it occurs, occurs almost entirely off-screen. There are no special effects to speak of.
Just why any of this is happening, or happening at this moment to these particular characters, is not clear and not the point. (You can make a case that all have some unfinished business — none died in bed after a long and fulfilled life.) There is none of the supernatural math that underlies many such stories (Indian burial ground + suburban tract = "Poltergeist"), or any sub-biblical gobbledygook. When dead characters talk about heaven or the afterlife here, they are improvising for the benefit of the living; when the living get biblical, we see them as misguided.
To my mind, it's the best series of the fall, and with the tonally similar "Top of the Lake," possibly of the year. The very real apprehension and suspense it creates come not from anticipating the sudden shocks a thousand scary movies have taught you to expect. Rather, they come from wanting things to go well for decent people caught up in something big and strange — people living and undead and in either case only human — and feeling that they well may not.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)