A remarkably faithful adaptation of the 2012 French series Les Revenants, A&E’s The Returned deploys the tropes of the horror genre in service of a meditation on grief. The series focuses on a small mountain town in which several deceased residents come back from the dead without any awareness that they’ve been gone. A rejoinder to the lurching, undifferentiated hordes that populate zombie movies, the undead of The Returned are finely shaded characters—thinking, feeling individuals unchanged from their previous selves. The mystery behind their reappearance provides an enticing hook, but it’s mostly beside the point; the series is more interested in exploring the emotional dynamic between these newly resurrected souls and the living townspeople who have mourned (and, in certain cases, tried to forget about) them.
For some, these returns are miraculous, a sign of fragile hope. After a brief prelude, The Returned opens with Camille (India Ennenga), a young teenager killed four years earlier in a school-bus accident, wandering back to her home. Her mother, Claire (Tandi Wright), returns from a support-group meeting to find her once-deceased daughter making a sandwich: “I know you’re probably worried,” Camille says, presuming her mother’s dismay is because she’s come home after curfew. “I would have called you, but I lost my phone.” Claire contacts her now-ex-husband (Mark Pellegrino), and the pair gaze at their daughter with a mixture of wariness and awe. The couple’s gratitude is tinged with dread; counterbalancing their apprehension about the forces that have permitted Camille’s resurrection is the fear that she might just as easily disappear again.
Others see something more sinister in these reawakened souls. Rowan (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) greets the return of her fiancé, Simon (Mat Vairo), who died on what was to be their wedding day, with denial and dread; six years later, she’s ready to marry someone else, and Simon’s return triggers painful memories she’s struggled to forget. One man is so troubled by the reappearance of his long-dead wife (Michelle Forbes) that he commits suicide. No matter how people respond, there’s the sense that the returned are interlopers intruding on the delicate order that’s been established in their wake.
To that end, The Returned works best in its quieter, more contemplative moments, as the living struggle with how to reintegrate the returned into their lives. Less successful are the show’s occasional attempts to goose the action with melodramatic twists, like the appearance of a serial killer and an unexplained psychic link between Camille and her sister (Sophie Lowe). Those twists overemphasize narrative momentum in a series whose greatest asset is its moody, languid atmosphere, one that’s augmented by a twilit color palette of inky blues and purples and Jeff Russo and Zoe Keating’s understated score. Their minimalist arrangements (a piano tinkle here, a cello glissando there) mark one of the show’s rare departures from its French forebear (where post-rockers Mogwai provided the dense, textured music).
It’s somehow appropriate that a series about the dead returning just as they were should be remade so faithfully. The exactitude with which The Returned replicates individual scenes and shots from the French source material can be eerie; there’s something uncanny about watching characters (many of whom retain their Gallic names) recite the same dialogue in English as they occupy an unchanged mise-en-scène. That faithfulness signals a deference to the original, and if that renders the series unnecessary in terms of its artistic contribution, it nonetheless guarantees the narrative a greater exposure among the subtitle-averse. The Returned is little more than a nimble translation, but the material is strong enough to reward its staunch fidelity.