Offbeat TV: “The Returned” on Sundance Channel

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If someone had told me that one of the best new shows of the Fall would be a French “return from the dead” series, I would have been highly suspect. I had never even heard of “The Returned,” which recently started airing Thursdays on the Sundance Channel. But about a month ago, I began hearing buzz from some British TV bloggers and became envious of their access to non-US based shows. My interest was piqued.

After seeing the premiere, I can say that “The Returned” takes an unconventional stab at the zombie genre. Instead of confronting hordes of the roaming infected, the locals of a small mountainous French village come face to face with children who had presumably perished during a school bus trip some years earlier (which is made clearer by the end of the 1st episode).

So far, the show does not seem interested in spelling out the mystery so we can hurry up to the action. Rather, “The Returned” counts on atmosphere to heighten our intrigue and keep us off balance as we confront these unusual returnees. We witness a family react to their child who appears unchanged after an apparently prolonged absence. And an older man driven to extreme agitation upon encountering a returnee. We are left to wonder who? how? why?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly creepy moments. A young boy called Victor is shrouded in mystery and his silent stares don’t feel reassuring. There is a lake and a very tall dam, and I’m sensing a connection to the overall explanation. Several scenes involve isolated individuals – in tunnels, on buses, in their homes – that evoke the typical beats of zombie horror. However, in “The Returned” these settings are used to highlight character emotions rather than pure scare tactics. Subsequently, my feeling of creepiness was more about the hair standing up on the back of my neck and not about jumping out of my seat. I’m in.

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