Before Jason Mott’s “The Returned” novel even hit shelves, ABC picked up an hour-long drama based upon the supernatural story of people returning years after they had passed away, looking exactly as they had when they passed away. The book focuses less on the how or the why and more on what the simple act of returning at all does to those who said their goodbyes and grieved years before only to have their lives uprooted and wondering if what returned was even human, let alone their actual loved ones at all. The ABC series focuses heavily in the pilot on the return of one special little boy to parents who are now old enough to be his grandparents. By the end of the episode, the small town this boy returned to realizes this is not an isolated incident, and the unknown looms large. Since the show is designed to be on-going, beginning mid-season 2014 with thirteen episodes, the elements of how and why are sure to be a major part of the show, perhaps even (unintentionally) taking a page out of Sundance Channel’s own version of The Returned, a French version of a story about people who pop back up years after they died, as well. If two similar stories mark a coincidence and three a trend, then it is official: traditional zombies are out and the industry is now focused on the much more human— and haunting— tales of relationships ravished by death only to be potentially torn apart further when those dead return.
All three versions of this story play with some similarities, most notably the insatiable level of hunger these quote-unquote returned come with, as well as the precocious child at the center of it all. But Sundance’s The Returned focuses on one small French town, while Mott’s novel tells of a global epidemic and the ABC version based on his book appears to want to follow in those footsteps by having the first returned turn up thousands of miles away from where he died, let alone was buried. Sundance’s The Returned focuses intimately on a few key players, starting with a teenage girl whose school bus crashed off a mountain only for that same girl to wake on the mountain years later and walk the few hours home to a stunned mother who turned her bedroom into a shrine for her lost little girl. You could almost let yourself think this girl just walked away from the terrible accident for a moment— something maybe supernatural about her— until you see the way people respond to her sudden presence after years of accepting her being gone.
Though the elements of the supernatural are not explicit, they are certainly sprinkled into this story much deeper than just the simple premise of being able to return from the dead at all. This particular teenage girl has an unexplained, slightly uncomfortable connection that arguably could have prevented or actually caused her own demise. She is the center of the start of this story but just one piece of the phenomenon. There is also a cryptic little boy who follows a stranger home and inserts himself into her life wordlessly but so easily you just feel this isn’t the first chain of events of which he has been in control— regardless of whether he’s someone who has returned or some other spirit or being.
The little boy may be the connecting piece between characters and events, but he is also important as a way to set the tone for the show as a whole. He is a quietly expressive character who literally only says one word in the premiere episode and instead does a lot more with looks and body language. The show as a whole is quiet and thoughtful in the sense that the dialogue (which has to be subtitled for anyone not fluent in French anyway) is secondary to the storytelling. You could watch this show on mute and still pick up on all of the most important factors because there is no explaining away situations or relationships through exposition. Everything is there plain as day on the faces of the actors, the detail in the art direction and key prop placement, and in the shot composition. Immediately you are deeply engrossed with the various intimate and emotional journeys, and only then are flashbacks to show the returned when they were still living (the first time) brought in to enhance your connection to the characters and give you an even greater understanding of the “why” behind such powerful and at times violent responses to their loved ones’ returns— and how much worse it will be if and when they disappear again.
Sundance’s The Returned isn’t really asking the “how” or “why”, either, choosing to treat each occurrence merely as another human event. It lets you live with these characters and experience what they do rather than peer in at them like a voyeur— or like they are creatures to be studied in a lab. Once they have the self-awareness that they died and are yet still somehow standing in flesh and bones again, they may begin to feel a bit more like specimens to be studied, and that just further enriches the range for the roller coaster you are riding with them. A handful of returned are introduced right off the bat— in the first episode— from various ages and situations and walks of life— and following all of them adds to the complexity, as well. In addition to the innocent young girl whose life was cut tragically short, for example, there is also a free-spirited musician, a seemingly average housewife, and a serial killer who seems to have perfected his kills even better in his absence from this world.
In such a small town, everyone is connected— sometimes in common and sometimes slightly convoluted ways— and therefore those who remained living while others died were the ones most changed by their lost relationships. Some of them— perhaps even many of them, the majority— may have strayed or spiraled too far from who and what they were supposed to be. So now that there are returned the question has to be asked: for whom is this second chance really?