To call The Returned “the French Lost” or “the French Twin Peaks” is lazy, but not a million miles off. All three have an exceptional air of isolation (due to their locations, The Returned is set in a remote Alpine small town, not entirely unlike Twin Peaks); all three have scenery to die for, and all three have absolutely glorious scores - but more on that later. I’d say Twin Peaks is the closer comparison, as both shows share an underlying sense of oddness, even when you exclude the central concept.
And what a seemingly simple concept it is. A small, isolated French town, somewhere around the Alps, suddenly begins to find its deceased residents coming back – apparently unaware of their own deaths. Why and how are important questions, but not necessarily the point. Refreshingly (for some, frustratingly for others), The Returned has spent its first series of eight beautifully made episodes not answering the whys and the hows and concentrating on the impact. The Returners, for what of a better phrase, are not zombies, and they have no revealed interest in eating brains or consuming living flesh. They have simply come back to life, which causes far more complications than might seem obvious. The Returned’s main concern, for most of the series, is with the impact that the Returners on their loved ones.
The Returned is all about the characters, and the performances are so composed and naturalistic that language barrier (The Returned is in French, with English subtitles) doesn’t really come into it. It’s unfair to single out specific performers, as the show is very much an ensemble affair, but Frédéric Pierrot is particularly impressive as the broken man Jérôme, as are Jenna Thiam and Yara Pilartz as his daughters, Lena and Camille. Guillaume Gouix and, Grégory Gadebois as brothers Serge and Toni also deserve a mention, as does Céline Sallette. I'll restrict myself to mentioning only one more performance, as I'm in danger of critiquing the entire cast one-by-one, but I can’t write a review of The Returned without mentioning Swann Nambotin. As the mysterious Victor (and he’s mysterious even for The Returned), Nambotin has a ethereal, otherworldly presence which is all the more remarkable considering The Returned is his first acting role, having been picked by the show’s creators from the children living in and around the filming location.
Adding to the show’s atmosphere is the fantastic score. Mogwai’s post-rock soundscapes may not be to everyone’s listening tastes usually (although they obviously are mine), but there’s no denying how powerful they are when combined with the performances and visual treats of The Returned. Faintly reminiscent of John Murphy’s outstanding musical contributions to films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, pieces like “Wizard Motor” beautifully compliment – and contribute to – the melancholy and emotional intensity of the show. The title sequence, like that of True Blood or Game of Thrones, is good enough musically and visually to be worth watching alone.
I'll end this review with a word of advice to anyone who goes ahead and watches it, or that watched it first time around and wasn’t too sure – don’t expect everything to be wrapped up by the last episode. Not every question is going to be answered at the end of the series, because The Returned doesn’t give you easy answers. I think viewing it in terms of series isn’t entirely accurate – the term series, or season, implies that there will be a different overall plot for each of them. I think the show as a whole will have one long-running storyline spread across several series (3 or 4, I believe), so it would probably be more accurate to refer to them as volumes.
In conclusion, I can scarcely recommend The Returned highly enough. Family drama mixes with fantasy and horror, with incredible amounts of atmosphere and mystery. It glides easily and quickly between being moving, unsettling, horrifying, often dryly amusing and always excellent, with outstanding performances, a melancholy soundtrack, and beautiful Alpine scenery. Whether you’ve seen it already or not, I suggest you seek it out and watch it – after all, you don’t want to be unprepared when it returns.