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'The Returned' Review: Creepy Undead Drama Done Right

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Anyone who sits down to watch "The Returned" (9 p.m. ET Thursday, Sundance Channel) expecting a bit of zombie ultraviolence is likely to be disappointed.

Those who enjoy atmospheric, psychologically driven horror fare, on the other hand, are likely to enjoy "The Returned" quite a bit. In a year already chock-a-block with worthy genre fare, "The Returned" stands out.

It's an open question as to which genre "The Returned" belongs in: It is definitely not a zombie franchise, and horror may not be the right category for this excellent French series, which Sundance Channel is airing with subtitles. You could put it in the "strange doings in a small town" category, but don't expect the weird non-sequiturs of "Twin Peaks" or the bombastic stupidity of "Under the Dome." Like "Twin Peaks," "The Returned" strives to create an eerie mood and a distinctive sense of place, but the latter show's almost single-minded devotion to its characters' emotional dilemmas sets it apart from both the surreal David Lynch classic and the nonsensical CBS summer hit.

The premise of "The Returned" is very simple: What happens when a few people known to be dead suddenly come back, even though it's been years since they were buried?

"The Returned" wisely limits the scale and scope of its ambition: There's no apocalypse, no burnt-out landscape of despair and deprivation through which the characters wander. Life simply goes on in a decent-sized French town in the mountains as a few characters grapple with the complications brought by the unexpected arrivals. Should the return of these former residents be kept secret? Are they really who they say they are? Are the differences they and others perceive a product of the fact that life has moved on since the returnee died, or is something more sinister going on?

A much more basic question lurks behind the return of these people (who are, by the way, definitely people, not stumbling, mindlessly ravenous zombies): What do the returnees want? Much of the effective mystery of "The Returned" revolves around that question, and even the returnees themselves can't quite answer it.

Like most good horror fare -- or at least the horror fare I enjoy -- at its core, "The Returned" grapples with emotional conundrums that resist easy solutions. One of the earliest scenes of the series depicts a support group for parents of dead children, and with capable assurance in that sequence and others, "The Returned" establishes how difficult it has been for people to move on from devastating losses and paralyzing grief.

But one of life's most difficult tasks is to process and move on after loss, and it's easy to understand why some characters want to defend themselves from assaults from the past. The idea of dismantling the new lives they've made for themselves is deeply unsettling -- but exciting, too. When a dead daughter turns up with no memory of her demise in the first episode, her mother's face frequently registers an emotion that could either be terror or tentative delight. "The Returned" makes the case that both of these emotions are not just sane but necessary.

Both the returnees and those who knew them experience extreme emotions: There's frustration at the changes they've missed and exhilaration at the possibilities they may be able to grasp. To offset any tendency toward bombast, however, "The Returned" keeps its focus on the small details of everyday life. The mountains are magnificent, but the town itself is quite mundane and the setting even begins to feel a bit boring (it's not hard to make the case that many in the unnamed town feel trapped, not just the disoriented returnees). The terrific and subtle soundtrack by the band Mogwai adds to the sense of lurking menace, and the fine cast very capably underplays moments that other shows would have amped up for Maximum Pathos.

But don't think that "The Returned" isn't scary; it can be chilling in its sparing use of violence. Restraint -- remember that? -- is one of the horror auteur's most evocative tools, but many filmmakers and TV creatives seem to have forgotten that it exists. Even if "The Walking Dead" is good at creating scary moments -- and it undoubtedly is, especially in its large-scale set pieces -- four seasons in, it seems to be mostly about creating opportunities for violence, and its characters are still mostly superficial and one-dimensional. The less showy violence of "The Returned," on the other hand, works because you understand why it's happening and you know who it's happening to, even as the show keeps some of its central mysteries under wraps.

"The Returned" creates a memorable portrait of small-town life, with all its annoyances and support systems, some of which fail residents who are struggling with loneliness and pain. Most affecting are the story of a librarian whose former life comes back to haunt her and the saga of a couple trying to cope with the fallout from the death of one of their twin girls. Another story that revolves around a creepy child is less consistently gripping (it's hard to be interested in an inscrutable character who rarely speaks), but over time, the portrait of the woman who begins to care for the boy gathers quiet intensity.

Not everyone who comes back is a nice person, and dark elements gather in the shadows as the show quietly and methodically builds up layers of detail. It's refreshing to watch a drama that is content to leave small clues here and there and not beat viewers over the head with obvious storytelling or ever-escalating violence. "The Returned" breathes; its pace is measured, but it very much appears to know where it's going.

That addiction to in-your-face gore and violence is more and more common in American television and, to reiterate briefly a case I made some time ago, those tools can succeed, but too often they are used exploitatively and to diminishing creative returns. And that's another way of saying that I fear for the American remake of "The Returned," which A&E is developing.

As I watched the French show, it was hard not to compile a mental list of obvious mistakes that are likely to be made in the translation. Skull-crushing violence is likely to be a regular feature, and subtle hints about the cause of the returns will probably be blown up into a creaky, dumb mythology that nobody will care about. I fear for the actor who will be forced to look intently at a computer screen and recite increasingly shrill techno-babble about why the dead are rising out of their graves, blah blah blah.

The mythology, the conflicts and the gore will probably be massively amplified to ramp up the American version's commercial potential, and the melancholy creepiness and aesthetic rigor of the French version will probably go by the wayside. But let's not get ahead of ourselves! It's not certain the A&E version will get made, so there's plenty of time to enjoy the original and be glad that Sundance imported this low-key but thoughtfully realized gem.

If you enjoyed Sundance's "Top of the Lake" or "Rectify" -- not to mention BBC America's "Broadchurch" or the Netflix import "The Fall" -- all of which share a similar devotion to specificity, complexity, the unexpected interplay of consequences and a visceral sense of place, you are likely to enjoy "The Returned." Think of it, if you will, as artisanal, small-batch horror -- an old-world classic that goes back to the basics and makes the most of its carefully chosen ingredients.

"The Returned" airs 9 p.m. ET Thursdays on Sundance Channel.

Ryan McGee and I discuss "The Returned" on this week's Talking TV podcast, which is available here, on iTunes and below.