French import The Returned is appropriately moody, cold and mysterious; a zombie thriller without lumbering walkers and torn flesh. The dreamy, creepy mood builds throughout the first season's eight episodes, which are set in a sparsely populated mountain town. Long-dead townsfolk return to their homes without memory of dying and attempt to reintegrate into the lives of family and friends who have already grieved their loss. "The Walking Dead" this is not, and The Returned combines French sensibilities with hints of early Stephen King and writer Harlan Coben. The first season leaves many mysteries unanswered, perhaps too many, which may be the show's greatest flaw. Each episode follows a specific character arc, and the show builds a complex web of players both returned and alive. The Returned uses 2004 film They Came Back as inspiration but creates a wholly original universe. The thoughtful drama and unnerving dread packed into each episode makes The Returned one of this year's best new series.
The gorgeous, tone-setting opening of the first episode finds fifteen-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) walking back toward town four years after her death in a bus accident. A butterfly simultaneously breaks free from its mount and glass coffin inside the home of an elderly man. Several others long deceased, including brooding groom-to-be Simon (Pierre Perrier), serial killer Serge (Guillaume Gouix), and pensive child Victor (Swann Nambotin), show up in town and do not find universally opened arms. Their parents, lovers and friends have moved on, and their reappearance is met with a mix of disbelief, fear and hesitant joy. Most of the returned post no immediate threat, at least physically, but each unwittingly rips open old, poorly healed wounds. The remaining characters include Camille's now-older twin sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), and the girls' mother, Claire (Anne Consigny); local shelter operator Pierre (Jean-Francois Sivadier); Serge's brother, Toni (Gregory Gadebois); Adele (Clotilde Hesme), Simon's former fiancé; and Julie (Celine Sallette), who survived an attack by Serge and eventually takes in a wandering Victor.
The dramatic rifts are immediately apparent. Camille struggles to understand what she is and immediately recognizes that her father (Frederic Pierrot) and Claire are no longer in love. Lena treats her sister with outward contempt but struggles internally with the possibility that Camille will be taken away again. Toni is shocked to see Serge, who met his end at Toni's hands, and Adele convinces herself that Simon is only in her head. The Returned deals its undead no easy victories. Each is cast out to various degrees: Adele initially rebuffs Simon, and Camille is put on display to comfort the parents of other children who died in the same bus crash. Who are the returned and what does their presence mean? These are two of the series' biggest questions, and neither is completely answered in these first eight episodes. The Returned hints at an endgame, but entrusts the secret of the undead to sexual medium Lucy (Ana Girardot), who may be a fraud. The town is a mystery in itself, and the series purposely removes itself from the world outside the town limits.
A pulsing soundtrack from Scottish post-rock band Mogwai accompanies the drama, and the show does an excellent job expounding on the mystery and general unease it establishes in the opening. The whole premise is unsettling, and The Returned constantly teases viewers as to whether or not they should fear specific characters. Camille may be hiding something evil behind her precocious smiles, and Victor's wide-eyed stares sent shivers down my spine. Serge is the only character with a violent past, and he proves one of the least unsettling undead. I can't say I would sleep easy knowing my decades-dead wife was plodding around my living room. The "never-dead" do awful things, too; out of spite and fear and jealousy. Emotions run high throughout much of the series, and the finale leaves little hope for an easy resolution.
I have seen The Returned's pacing and disclosures likened to those of TV juggernaut "Lost," a series I never watched (I know, I know…). This is a slow burn, thoughtful show, and the creators must tread carefully in later seasons to avoid alienating viewers. The Returned asks so many questions that it never answers. Among them: Why does the local police captain (Samir Guesmi) have surveillance cameras inside Camille and Lena's home? What the hell is Lucy? Why did a pack of animals drown themselves in the reservoir? Do the returned come back forever or just a few weeks? I applaud this show for being both entertaining and challenging, and I suspect it will have a successful run if the producers keep a forward momentum.
Each episode receives a crystal-clear 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Fine object detail and texture are impressive, and the digitally shot series has a lot of HD pop. The color scheme is tweaked toward cool blues and greys, but everything is nicely saturated. Black levels and shadow detail are good, and I noticed no issues with artifacting or aliasing.
The French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks that accompany each episode are moody and affecting, like the series, and each provides a subtly immersive experience. There is a theatrical quality to the surround mixing, and the range is extensive. There is plenty of quiet, perfectly audible dialogue alongside bursts of action and ambient effects. The Mogwai music resonates, and the whole package is backed with surround and subwoofer support. English subtitles are provided.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
There are no on-disc extras, but this two-disc set is handsomely packed in a digipack. A multi-page booklet provides essays and interviews.
The French have created a subtly frightening zombie series with barely an open wound in sight. The Returned sees a host of long-dead citizens of an idyllic mountain town return to their homes with no knowledge of their demise. This causes much tension between the living and undead, and this first season only teases at the origin and purpose of these returned souls. This slow-burn chiller is moody and atmospheric and one of the year's best new series. Highly Recommended.