‘The Returned’ Is the French Zombie TV Show You Must Binge-Watch This Christmas

Amid the fall rush of shows, Sundance’s The Returned kind of got lost in the pack. Even I missed it, and ended up binge-watching it this weekend after buying it on iTunes. I cannot recommend it enough.

The first strike against it is that it’s in French, which means subtitles, which a lot of people (deservedly, IMHO) find distracting. I even speak French, and the whole time I kept quibbling with the translator’s choices. Another flaw, in terms of popular appeal, is the very thing that makes the series so great to watch: it’s a lot more subtle than your average zombie drama. It’s like the anti-Walking-Dead, in part because it’s not even clear these are zombies. In French, the series’ name is the slightly more haunting and ambiguous Les Revenants, which is something of a synonym for ghosts. So even as it uses most of your standard horror stops, the show still manages to meditate intelligently on death, on the distance between a pure phantom and a body.

The mountain-range town in which the show is set is a gorgeous, if rather airless and compartmentalized, sort of place. When people who have died — in bus crashes, of suicide, of murder — begin walking out of the woods back to the lives they think they never left, there is an inherent beauty to their reverse Pied Piper routine. But they are returning to a place of relatively careful emotional control, where  most of the people the dead left behind are still trapped in their memories. When one of the returned is asked if things have changed, he smiles and says, “Not really.” And in fact, 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz), the first of them, only seems to realize that her return is out of the ordinary when she finally comes face to face with a twin sister (Jenna Thiam) who’d gone ahead and grown up in the interim. You get the impression that even before a bus crash that killed 40, some kind of biblical flood, and the serial killer who’s plaguing a local tunnel, there was something not altogether happy about this town.

After all, with the dead people coming back, you’d think there would be rejoicing, but the reaction is muted, weary, apprehensive. That mood is used to explain most of the show’s standard-issue horror implausibilities. No one seems willing to take the returned for any medical exams, for example — in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a doctor in the house, just a lonely nurse who’ll come by on the public transportation system the town somehow does have. Everyone is reluctant to seriously discuss the history of the town’s tragedies, so we have to live on carefully meted out clues, many of which don’t give you a real answer in the long run.

But if there’s still a few threads dangling at the end, the overall effect is satisfyingly hypnotic. It doesn’t inspire the “well, now you’re just screwing with me” feelings something like Lost did. I saw someone, somewhere, refer to this as a sort of French Top of the Lake, another series whose emotional atmosphere is some pretty thick fog. The analogy is not quite correct. Top of the Lake is a lot more of an auteur’s project; it’s got all of Campion’s trademark obsessions with misogyny and violence warping the plot. (To be clear, I loved the obsessions and the warps, I just don’t deny that’s what they are.) The Returned, meanwhile, has a fairly smooth surface, relatively clear plotting. It’s not an idiosyncratic bit of work, I’m saying; what it is, is a very, very well-executed horror-drama. And one you could sit down and watch all eight hours of straight through this week, when you need a break from your family.