Channel 4 needs a hit on their hands and so are attempting to steal BBC4’s glory by bringing us hot new French drama The Returned. After the ropey second season of Homeland and The Killing US ending with a limp, they are going all out with a bleakly shot, supernatural crime drama with plenty of subtitles. So much so, that social media teasers suggested they Frenchified the ad break, sadly I can’t comment on that as my live feed broke so I’ve had to watch on 4oD.
The Returned is set in a French mountainside town which a few years previous suffered a terrible tragedy when a bus full of schoolchildren careered off the mountainside, killing all 38 onboard. One night one of the schoolchildren, Camille, wakes up on the mountainside with no memory of what happened and not realising that she is dead and has been for some time. That same night, several other previously dead inhabitants of the town also reappear, to various levels of consternation from their loved ones. Although billed as a zombie drama, the returned inhabitants seem to be exactly like they were when alive, although I did notice that none of them seem able to sleep.
We had all the key ingredients we’ve come to expect from what I suppose with now have to be called Euro Noir; moody palette of blues and greys, highly symbolic imagery, slow yet hypnotic pacing. There were some deft touches of humour in the first episode, offset by a grisly and unexpected murder. Previews suggested that this murder will be one of many and lead into a serial killer mystery, unlike usual crime dramas we have seen the murderers face, though we know nothing about him. My first assumption is whether the murder victim, in this case a pretty young waitress called Lucy, will also return to life.
The episode was mainly taken up with showing the various reactions to the town’s inhabitants on coming face to face with those long dead. It has been suggested by critics that when you don’t understand the language, the acting seems stronger. Camille’s mother’s wordless response to her dead daughter calmly walking into the kitchen and making herself a sandwich is clearly a candidate for scene of the year. Especially after she then had to race upstairs to clear away the shrine to Camille’s memory so the girl wouldn’t realise what had happened.
What has happened? Well this is the interesting thing, no real explanation has been given and it seems as though this won’t be the central mystery of the show. More compelling is the identity of the little boy Victor, he also appears to be one of the returned but has attached himself to a doctor who has no previous connection to him. He also seems to have been the cause of the bus crash, standing in the middle of the road when it happened. Is he the shadow of Death? Some sort of Damian figure?
We were also introduced to Simon, the series main eye candy, who died in 2002 (he handily found his grave) and whose wife has since remarried. Awkward. Fair to say she wasn’t too pleased at his resurrection. On which note, when the priest/doctor figure told Camille’s mother that this had happened before, was he referring to Jesus’s resurrection or ordinary people? Our final group of characters was tragic Mr Costa and his wife, who he attempted to burn when she arrived back clearly several decades after she died but has mysteriously (yes, I know, I need to buy a thesaurus) escaped the blaze. Not so Mr Costa, who jumped into the town’s quarry in a dramatic and not entirely unexpected suicide. Speaking of the quarry, the water level’s have been going down since the supernatural high jinks, is this significant?
As you’d expect, the first episode set up a lot more questions than it answered. At this point we don’t even know if the characters are who they say they are. There was a suggestion that Camille and her twin sister (a phenomenal scene when they come face to face and look very different, the twin Lena having aged since Camille’s death) may have switched places on the morning of the crash. They also appear to have a psychic link, with Camille feeling her sister’s pain at losing her virginity even though she was on the bus at the time. Camille’s panic (or was it jealousy) is the second factor in the crash.
To conclude, I haven’t got the faintest idea what is going on or where this will lead. It’s clearly going to get a lot more sinister as the series progresses but I think the strong emphasis on family will temper this and give the show humanity. My main concern is keeping up with all the characters, especially as I don’t have any recognisable actors to help me. At least if the quality of this first episode is sustained, Channel 4 will have successfully gambled on the irresistible rise of the subtitled thriller.
Contributed by Victoria Prior