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THE RETURNED (Les Revenants): Season One (review)

Review by Todd Sokolove

Often to the surprise of even some of the most avid watchers of television, some of the best American series these days are in fact remakes of imports.

There are the mega-hits like The Office and American Idol, then there are the shows like In Treatment or Homeland that shouldn’t work, but do.

So, it’s no surprise that American networks have already set their sights on two of my favorite series from the past year — Britain’s Broadchurch for Fox, and the hit French series Les Revenants for A&E.

In the case of both of these, I highly recommend you catch up with the original series before giving the American versions a try.  Those of you already hip to the later mentioned series, airing here on Sundance Channel as The Returned, you’re probably counting down the hours to tonight’s Season One finale.

Les Revenants initially aired on Canal+ in France over a year ago, then took the UK by storm.  Sundance Channel’s risk to put a subtitled series on their network with as much hype as any original program should be commended alone.

But Sundance also took a risk in that the series doesn’t follow a narrative typical of US television, nor does it move at a very fast pace.  Those would usually mark the death toll for audiences here, but The Returned works brilliantly because it’s always completely, hauntingly captivating.

Set in a remote village, where everyone knows one another, the series launches into its high-concept premise from the get go.  It seems the dead have returned.  But not a la George A. Romero/Robert Kirkman.

From different time periods, and from different, unrelated deaths, the townsfolk get their loved ones back, completely the way they left them.  They’re unaged, yet unable to remember the specifics of their resurrection.

Then things start to get weird.

Part of the fun of the series is in the gradual reveal from episode to episode, each of which is framed around one character, with two clever exceptions.  The questions you’ll ask as the viewer evolve throughout your experience with these characters, so it’s no surprise that the series crafts answers to its mysteries through them.

I’ll tell ya, nobody does existentialism like the French.

The show benefits greatly from a stellar cast, many of ironically returning from the original French film the series is based on.  First time child actor Swann Nambotin is perfectly creepy as the youngest of the returned dead, without even having to say a word.  There are many moments that could serve as visual representations of this first season, but the kid’s portrayal of Victor triumphs them all.

It also helps that the series was shot on location in the Hate-Savoie region of France, using already existing locations.  Like the town of Twin Peaks, the small mountain town in The Returned and everything in it is a character in itself.  There’s a moody dam, separating an underwater village long flooded ago, a lakeside pub (hysterically called “The Lake Pub”) where the teens go to get into trouble, a small community church big enough to hold the entire town, cold remote modern houses with dysfunctional families and ominous underpass tunnels you’d be best not to pass through.

By the way, in true French style, Scottish rock band Mogwai has scored the series brilliantly.  The opening theme is a twisted lullaby that sets the tone, but the majority of the music you’ll hear in the show is ambient, textured and most importantly moody.

Not everything goes answered in this first season of The Returned.  There is a second season coming in late 2014, going in front of the cameras at the start of the new year.  It’s gonna be a long wait for answers.

But The Returned is so outrageously intriguing that it doesn’t really matter.  With every episode it gets more bizarre.  More grotesque. More puzzling.

****

The Returned Season Finale airs on the Sundance Channel tonight, Thursday, December 19th at 9pm (ET/PT).

Watch the complete series from NOON until 10pm (ET/PT) on Sunday, December 22nd on The Sundance Channel.

The first episode is currently available for FREE on iTunes now here, and the entire first season will be available for download after tonight’s finale on Sundance.

Watch the original movie the series is based on (Les Revenants or They Came Back) for FREE on Hulu now here.

For directions to the actual Lake Pub featured in the series, click here.

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