Let’s get the obvious out of the way quickly: The only reason A&E’s The Returned exists is because most television viewers hate reading subtitles. The Returned is an English-language remake of France’s Les Revenants. Premiering Tuesday, just three years after the original’s first season debuted (and while the second season is currently in production), the show’s biggest obstacle will be trying to live up to its acclaimed predecessor. Les Revenants has already aired in America, on Sundance, and is currently available on Netflix, so there is really no reason for this remake except to allow viewers to watch without reading. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I haven’t seen Les Revenants, so I can’t speak to whether Carlton Cuse’s iteration is better or worse, but I can say that it’s a thoroughly captivating, creepy, and unsettling (in a good way!) drama — and, at least, much better than NBC’s similar show, Resurrection.
The Returned is about the living dead walking the earth, but it’s not a zombie thriller. Suddenly, and with no explanation (at least not yet), a few people who have been dead for years return to life. They do not come back limping and disheveled, with ripped clothes and a hunger for brains; they are basically themselves as they once were — human, emotional, alive, and normal except, maybe, slightly off. We first witness this phenomenon through Camille (India Ennenga), a 16-year-old high school student who died in a horrible bus crash on a school trip (along with everyone else on the vehicle), then inexplicably returns four years later, climbing up the cliff and heading home, slightly confused but mostly just really needing a sandwich. After all, being dead for four years means you also didn’t eat for four years.
There are other resurrected characters, such as Simon (Mat Vairo), a guitarist who died the day of his wedding while his bride-to-be Rowan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waited in the church. The most intriguing character is a silent, mysterious young boy (Dylan Kingwell), possibly named Victor, who suddenly appears at a bus stop and is taken in by a confused doctor (Sandrine Holt) who keeps trying to figure out who he is and where he came from.
These resurrected, reanimated, or whatever you want to call these characters are all memorable and unsettling. They have no memories of dying and no idea why or how they came back. “You’re not a zombie,” Peter (Jeremy Sisto), head of a grief counseling group, reassures Camille, “You’re a miracle.” But Camille doesn’t want to be a miracle. She wants to have a normal life, but that’s impossible because everyone thinks she’s dead; her parents can’t exactly bring her out in public, she can’t reconnect with any of her friends, and her own sister is afraid of her. Camille has been gone for four years but is still 16 years old and unchanged, while everything else around her is different — and therein lies the really interesting thing about The Returned: It’s not so much about the returned as it is about those who stayed.
Camille comes back to a different family: separated parents, each with new sort-of partners in their lives, and a twin sister who is suddenly four years older than Camille and who is still reeling from guilt (she stayed home from the trip in order to hook up with the boy that Camille also had a crush on) and drinking too much. She can’t relate to them, and they all — understandably — can’t stop staring at her in a way that makes her deeply uncomfortable. Simon has returned to a daughter who was born after his death, and to learn that Rowan is getting married to someone else, a sheriff who is trying to figure out what the hell is going on while also trying to ensure that Rowan doesn’t go back to Simon.
The Returned isn’t light, fun fare; it’s a series that asks some darker, more existential questions — and that isn’t too keen on easily or neatly providing answers to the audience. It’s a combination mystery/horror drama that really commits to those genres, and it works far better than Cuse’s other post-Lost endeavors. Perhaps it’s because he had such a great template to work from — praise for the original is almost unanimous — but now it’s up to him to capture the atmosphere of Les Revenants while also finding a way to make it more than just a near shot-for-shot remake. If he succeeds (and so far, it’s promising), we’ll get a brilliantly eerie series that’ll stay with viewers for a long time.