A school bus swerves to avoid a small boy and plummets over a cliff. Everyone dies. Nasty.
On a brighter note, one of the first things we discover is that the small boy looks uncannily like a prepubescent version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. But that’s not important right now.
Before long we learn that when people die in this town it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll never see them again. In fact the dead can show up at any moment, usually saying they feel “a bit peckish”. Then they simply pop off to bed, as if nothing has happened.
Five minutes into the first episode of this French drama series I had completely forgotten it had sub-titles – such was the show’s instantly haunting and melancholic impact.
What currently passes for drama on BBC1 (The White Queen?) is put to utter shame by The Returned (Channel 4). This brilliant new series reminds me a little of Twin Peaks, and a little more of Six Feet Under. It’s mesmeric, eerie and crammed with beautiful imagery and fine acting.
Originally called “Les Revenants”, the series was shot in France in the stunning mountain village of Annecy. Fabrice Gobert co-wrote the scripts and directed five of the episodes and he is clearly a talent we’ll be seeing a lot more of on the international stage.
The first character who forgets to stay dead is Camille (Yara Pilartz), a young teenage girl who was killed in the awful coach crash. Camille shows up four years later to discover that her bitchy twin sister is now a foot taller and her father Jérôme is grumpier than ever. Not only does Jérôme have both an “e” acute and a circumflex in his name, but he is played by an actor called Frédérric Pierrot – a man who is without doubt the most French-looking Frenchman in all of French France.
When elderly neighbour Mr Costa discovers that his much-younger wife has also returned from the dead he’s so pleased to see her that he ties her up and burns the house down with her inside. Woh, what kind of a marriage did they have? Then the old feller goes and swallow dives off the top of the dam.
I forgot to mention the dam. For some reason all of this supernatural activity is also affecting the water levels in the lake. Perhaps the dead are rising up from Hell through a deep crevasse in the lake floor? Or maybe it’s just global warming.
My favourite performance is by Samir Guesmi as local police detective Thomas. He sits watching as live on CCTV his lovely girlfriend Adèle is bedded by one of the undead. What were the chances of that happening? Until that moment their relationship had been going pretty well. Why he has CCTV installed in his girlfriend’s bedroom is another matter. Control freak or what!?
Another of the returning dead is a scary serial killer who likes to eat women’s stomachs. If this guy’s both undead and eats human flesh doesn’t that make him a “zombie”? Perhaps. Perhaps not. To call this highly original drama series a mere zombie yarn would do it a terrible disservice. It’s so much more lyrical and poetic than that.
Lets’ face it, the French do dark, minimalist acting and moody smouldering better than anyone else. Their films effortlessly hold our attention and connect with our emotions on the deepest level, without ever doing anything particularly flashy on camera. You can’t see the wires. By comparison, The White Queen looks like Thunderbirds.
My guess is that we’ll never truly know for sure why the dead have decided to return from the grave. It’s that kind of series. But if you like your TV drama stylish and atmospheric then you should totally catch up with The Returned.