The Returned, Best in (TV) Show 2013

 What’s the highest rated TV show on MetaCritic this season? The answer may surprise you. With an impressive score of 92%, Les Revenants, Canal+ and Music Box Film’s French supernatural drama chronicling the resurrection of the deceased residents of an alpine town, takes the crown. Christened The Returned in its English incarnation, the series completed its first season on the Sundance Channel on December 19. And while it may not be the greatest season of any show I’ve ever seen, The Returned is compelling, fresh, and continues to ask us subtly intriguing questions that make us— well, return.

The first season traces the narrative arcs of four deceased members of the alpine community who suddenly, inexplicably come back to life. They appear not as supernatural ghosts or zombies, but as normal humans that haven’t aged since their “death.” The treatment of these stories is genuine and thoughtful. Instead of attempting to concoct an implausible and cringe-worthy explanation for why these resurrections are taking place, the writers have left this as an organic, evolving mystery, accepted “the return” as fact, and focused on the massive social and emotional impact such a phenomenon would have on the town where it happens.

The stories and “the returned” themselves are extremely varied—a teenage schoolgirl (Camille) killed when her bus veers off the mountain road; a psychopathic serial killer (Serge) offed by his own brother to protect the town; an innocent but disarming boy (Victor) murdered during a burglary; and a depressed musician (Simon) turned suicidal on his wedding day. Such diversity could easily have turned into an ambitious hodgepodge of disparity (a la Cloud Atlas, 2012). Yet, somehow, these narrative threads are woven into a cohesive fabric. In each case, the show depicts how “the returned” react to past baggage, reach out to loved ones, and create a “new purpose” for themselves. On the other hand, the town is posed with a dilemma—will it band together to accept its former neighbors and friends, or, spurred on by suspicion, embark on a witch-hunt?

The show gives us glimpses of both possibilities. In the series’ standout feel-good arc (I awwed so much), the lonely Julie takes on the role of “fairy godmother” from Victor’s childhood storybooks and offers him motherly sanctuary. After arguing over guys and engaging in much teenage angst, biological twins Camille and Lena—who now “look” four years apart —learn to care for each other. Even Toni, who murdered his brother Serge, rekindles a new fraternity with him. All of this is tempered by the town’s chief of police, Thomas, who continually tries to rip apart his fiancé Adele from the returned Simon, whom she almost married ten years ago.  Sandrine, one of the mothers of the children who died on the bus, scapegoats Camille for anything and everything that goes wrong in the town and intentionally guilt-trips her by asking, “Why you? Why not my daughter?” Both of these narratives are thus understandable and coexist in tension throughout the series.

But this tension-filled dynamic isn’t the only smart choice creator Fabrice Golbert makes. A hallmark of the series is its poetic use of symbolism, best encapsulated perhaps in the season finale by the resurfacing of the old town, submerged in an alpine lake after the local dam burst three decades ago. The event is endowed with a sense of importance, as the lake becomes the focus of the show’s many supernatural occurrences: the mysterious recession of the dam’s water levels, the frequent power outages at the lake’s hydroelectric plant, and even the return of “the returned” themselves who always re-enter the world of the living on dam’s edge.

The submerged town in The Returned finds a direct parallel in the famous Spanish novella San Manuel Buneo, Martir, in which “la villa sumergida en el lago” (the village submerged in the lake) represents the concept of intrahistoria, the idea that the present finds its foundation in history, which is itself best understood by tracing the individual stories of anonymous people. It seems to me The Returned takes more than a leaf from this book by formulating a direct isomorphism between the submerged town and the lives of “the returned.” The resurfacing of the town in the season finale thus symbolically exposes the emotional tension of “the living”— the foundation of their lives lies in the lake (electricity, water, basic necessities), and equally in the lives of the town’s deceased (through their work in laying the town’s foundations both figuratively and literally). Yet, they cannot help but see both as an imminent danger when they acquire a supernatural aura beyond the ordinary.

The score is equally good, intermixing eerie techno squeaks with a hum that rises in volume until it reaches its crescendo – a close approximation of a washing machine about to end its cycle. It is calculated creepiness at its best. The symbolism and score reveal a key element of the series: its surprising degree of restraint. Missing is that shot of adrenaline and instant excitement that most dramas try to elicit in viewers. Every time I finished watching an episode of The Returned, I oddly thought to myself, “Hm, that was boring—let’s watch another one.”

By revealing only a little bit at a time of what are ordinary lives encumbered by extraordinary events, the show gives the impression that nothing is happening.  But in this pointedly nameless town with geographically nondescript locales like The Lake Pub and The Helping Hand, we cannot help but identify with the specific and the familiar: the characters who appear as real as we are. And thus, beneath the surface, questions continue to fester, demanding answers.

To its credit, The Returned gives these answers at just the right pace to prevent us from becoming frustrated while also not cheating us of the experience of piecing together the intricate puzzle of figuring out what exactly is happening. Instead of the horror associated with most supernatural, zombie drama, we get a beautiful, ominous seduction. It’s this seduction that makes The Returned an intelligent French masterpiece, the best show you’ve never even heard of, and the best of the Fall season.


The series finale of The Returned aired on the Sundance Channel on December 19.  If (like most of us), you don’t subscribe to the Sundance Channel, the first season is available on Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Parth Parihar is a junior in the Mathematics department.