Review: Sundance re-animates its spooky yet low-key and very French ‘Returned’

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Los Angeles Times Television Critic

And so “The Returned” returns to Sundance, on Halloween night, even as “Ash vs Evil Dead,” continuing another tale of the walking dead, comes to Starz, the ridiculous to its sublime. If you haven’t seen the first season, as any serious viewer of television should, I recommend clipping or printing this column for future reading and remedying that now. It’s beautiful and mysterious and sad and plays its game close to its chest — a series to get lost in, if you can stand the chills, and the heat, and don’t mind reading subtitles (if you don’t speak French).

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Originally titled “Les Revenants” and adapted by Fabrice Gobert from Robin Campillo’s very different 2004 film of that name, is a sort of ghost story and a sort of zombie story, though not either as we tend to understand them around here. Though they have some different habits, talents and challenges, these dead are temperamentally and physically indistinguishable from the living. They eat, they smoke, they have sex. (Insert French joke here.) At times, in this large ensemble cast, you might forget who is which. Each side has its better and worse, its settled and unsettled, its helpful and dangerous souls.


The new season begins six months after the end of the last — though it comes to the screen two years later, to the night — builds on and fulfills the first. Although that year left much — everything, really — unexplained, the series could have ended there, with its poetry intact and its promise fulfilled. We tend to like our mysteries explained, but there’s a lot to be said for mystery that remains. Indeed, the danger in developing the story further is that the inexplicable will be explained; magic is always better when you’re blind to its mechanics. But for the moment, “Je ne sais pas” is the phrase you’ll hear most: “I don’t know.”

At the end of last season, survivors of a night of supernatural mayhem — all of it taking place unseen, offscreen — emerged from their hiding place to find that their alpine town flooded up to its church steeple. Half a year later, the lake remains, dividing one unsubmerged part of town from another; the dead reside mostly in one neighborhood, the living mostly in another.

Where the first season was a kind of social drama in which the formerly departed joined the life of a small town, the town is mostly empty now; the living who remain have some kind of business with the dead and are accounted strange by the outsiders, unconscious of the local uncanniness, who have come to investigate the flood. Winter seems to be coming on. Everything is drear and damp, as if the landscape itself were suffering from some dreadful malaise.

As it is, the story does not shy away from employing certain horror-movie tropes: the roads that never lead out of town, the fetus growing too fast, the strange-eyed child with secret knowledge, the unkillable killer. But what “The Returned” does with them is something less usual.

Partly, it’s a matter of tone — there is a quiet naturalism to the production, quite distinct from Hollywood horror, in which every trick in the audio-visual book is marshaled to jolt you as far as possible out of your seat when the scare comes, and also from supposedly found-footage films (“The Blair Witch Project” and its progeny) that use aesthetic chaos to suggest actuality. This is altogether more mature.

And partly it’s a matter of focus. Whatever may be discovered at the bottom of that sinkhole, this is a story of people — a story of family, most of all, of what it means to be a parent, a child, a caretaker, to be taken care of, to refuse care. Life is complicated enough as it is; death is just a wrinkle.



‘The Returned’

Where: Sundance

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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