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'The Returned' breathes new life into foreign programming

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One suspects the world is out of kilter when a French girl utters cultural sacrilege: "Love is stronger than death? What a load of bull."

The girl in question, Camille, has returned from the dead, unbruised and unbloodied and looking just as she did four years earlier, before her school bus rounded a reservoir and sailed off a mountain. She does not devour flesh or walk in spastic shuffles. She's a zombie in the European style, moving with grace, pouting and posing existential questions in a mountain village where the water is rising and animals are up to strange things.

The critically praised TV series "The Returned" is a French parsing of the afterlife, a chillingly photographed dimension where the living and the departed, try as they may, cannot remake their shattered idyll. The eight-part series, which concluded this month on the Sundance Channel, is an eerie meditation on relationships, resurrection, redemption and where we tuck our fears and escape our sins in a world fixated on the eternal.

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The show's creators wanted to humanize the dead and "make them understandable and likable," producer Jimmy Desmarais said in an email from Paris. "They are not zombies, they don't even know they are dead at first, they just want to start their life again. The human dimension of the return prevails over any supernatural or frightening one. But as time goes, and confronted by the difficulty of returning with the living loved ones, the returned take different paths."

Tout cela est naturel.

"The Returned" became the highest-rated original drama ever on France's prestigious Canal + channel, Desmarais said. It was also a hit in Britain, he added, "where Channel 4 hadn't broadcast a subtitled drama in 20 years." U.S critics have raved — Variety called the show "brainy, bizarre yet strangely hypnotic," and The Times' Robert Lloyd lauded it as "deep, mysterious and remarkable."

As frequently happens with such shows, the A&E network is now developing "The Returned" in English and sans subtitles.

"'The Returned' takes an incredibly unique approach, filled with suspense and twists and turns, to the subject of the living dead," said David McKillop, general manager and executive vice president of A&E. "Part mystery, part thriller; 'The Returned' is a perfect complement to A&E's unique brand of scripted storytelling."

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The American television market has had an odd, culturally imbalanced relationship with foreign programming. U.S. producers borrow foreign narratives and tweak them to fit American sensibilities (and of course vice versa). The 1970s landmark sitcom "All in the Family" was modeled on the British serial "Till Death Do Us Part." Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" was the loose inspiration for the 1980s yuppie hit "thirtysomething."

Foreign language films for decades have enjoyed a niche art house market, but Americans, even as YouTube videos go viral and national boundaries are blurred by new rhythms and multi-ethnic collaborations, prefer homegrown TV entertainment. Except for those sherry-tippling (English-prattling) Brits of "Downton Abbey."

The U.S. has a tradition of "loving to export its culture to other countries around the world, but it doesn't like to import [in other languages]," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It's not that the American television audience is not smart enough for this stuff. ... But subtitles are hard for a lot of people."

The high quality of American television in recent years has also made it difficult for international programs to compete with the likes of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." This may be gradually changing, though. The well-reviewed "Borgen," a Danish political drama showing on some public TV stations, has drawn an intensely loyal audience.

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Viewers and critics have also taken notice of "Top of the Lake," a mystery about the vanishing of a 12-year-old pregnant girl filmed in New Zealand and starring "Mad Men's" Elisabeth Moss, and "Prisoners of War," an Israeli series on Hulu that elucidates the emotional and psychological scars of the Middle East conflict. Showtime's CIA thriller "Homeland" is an adaptation of "Prisoners." Such intriguing foreign fare is also increasingly available on DVD and the Internet.

But what's a back-from-the-grave French girl supposed to do to attract an audience?

The "Returned" unspools slowly. Camille and her dead compatriots — the handsome Simon pining after his fiance and Serge, a woodsman and the town's resident cannibal/serial killer — are determined to re-insinuate themselves in past lives. It's impossible, life edges on, the fallen grow fainter. Or do they? And at times, it's hard to know who's alive and who's dead as a baffled police force wades through unsolved murders amid pewter skies and the brooding music of Mogwai.

"It's important to be at peace with one's ghosts," a priest counsels a troubled parishioner. "Contrary to what people think, they mean us no harm."

They certainly can be annoying, though. Restless souls are unrealized dreams. They scare, but unlike the ravaged flesheaters of "The Walking Dead," they momentarily soothe, suffusing the netherworld with the real world and forcing introspection of who we are and how we love and let go. "The Returned" bristles with modern anxieties in hushed terms, creating a stylish and perplexing landscape between miracles and the apocalypse.

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The show was inspired by the movie of the same name, "Les Revenants," and a diverse collection of other influences, including 19th century surrealist French literature, the Black Hole comic book by Charles Burns, and photographer Gregory Crewdson, whose images of American domesticity feel as if the painter Edward Hopper stumbled onto the terrain of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."

Nature, like the dead, is its own character in "The Returned," an Alpine landscape succumbing to rising water (far away from the Parisian or Riviera locales Americans usually see in French entertainment). The town's dam, where the dead linger as if lost traveling salesmen, offers little protection. Nature can be a cathedral but also a lush, fog-gauzed coffin.

The show's writers, who have completed a second season, wanted to conjure "the hidden worlds of nature, and [use] the mountains as an impassable horizon," Desmarais said. The people of the town face an environment that is "imperceptibly changing, making situations even more destabilizing. These elements, combined with the fact that no character in the series has explanations or clues about what's happening, who or what is responsible for it, can reflect today's world."

Enter Victor, a pint-sized package of creepy innocence. Murdered in his pajamas in a burglary 35 years earlier, he reappears near the town's reservoir and slips into the life of Julie, who earlier had been attacked by the serial killer, Serge. They both need comfort from their demons, but Victor, who often sits quietly as if waiting for a cookie, is not as helpless as he seems. He sees and, perhaps can act on, what others chose to forget.

The dead like him know too well the sins of the living.

"No one can hurt us now," one returnee tells Victor.

"But can we hurt other people?" he asks.

"They don't need us for that."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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