The Returned Is the Best Show on Television
by Anne Helen Petersen and Jia Tolentino
AHP: Jia, real talk; The Returned is the best show that’s (kinda sorta not really) airing on television.
J: The Returned is absolutely the best show on my computer, which is my television.
AHP: The Returned is a French import, currently airing on Sundance, which seems to have a monopoly on awesome moody imports. It was originally titled Les Revenants. It’s set in a small, remote town in the French mountains near a huge dam (plot point!) where, one day, a small set of random people return from the dead.
J: There’s an arresting, rough-edged, exquisite quality to every shot, and Mogwai does the music, and it’s Explosions in the Sky, Friday Night Lights good.
AHP: To be clear: I’m not into zombie shows. I loathe Walking Dead and put up with World War Z uniquely for Brad Pitt. But mysterious, vaguely creepy foreign shows, holy shit am I on board: see, for example, The Fall, Broadchurch, Top of the Lake. And, anyway, this is no zombie show: they’re all perfectly (and beautifully, in many cases) intact. They died at different times, for different reasons, but they each wake up with zero memory of a.) dying or b.) being dead, and re-enter the world as if nothing happened. The narrative pivots on the rest of the world’s inability to reincorporate them into their lives 5, 10, 15, 25 years later.
The other bonus is that the first episode is available for free on iTunes, which is how I tempted Jia into watching and, hopefully, is how you’ll get hooked as well. We’re committed to non-spoilers past episode one, but we’re going to talk about the feel and tone and addictiveness of the show at large.
J: Yes. My mania for this show is all-consuming. I am not a television proselytizer normally, and The Returned is probably the only show that I’ve ever like, sat people down at parties and tried to convince them to watch it. IT’S SO GOOD.
AHP: I cannot shut the fuck up about this show. Did I just meet you at the awkward faculty Christmas party? Awesome, let me tell you about The Returned.
J: Oh, I should say that I also hate zombie stuff! Especially when it has highbrow aspirations. I strongly disliked Zone One, etc. But this show is something totally different.
AHP: That’s the thing: they’re not zombies, per se. Aren’t zombies technically bitten or consumed or whatever while still alive? These people are dead and then come back, so the question is much less about what will they do to us and much more about how have we changed.
J: Yeah. They are just as much ghosts, or objective correlatives for The Past. Or whatever! The basic question of what the hell are they is a mystery that drives our viewer curiosity in the same way that it drives the action in the town. We’re like the parents and former lovers and cops; we’re trying to make sense of the same, enigmatic, conflicting clues. And the manner in which everyone does try to get around this mystery is a litmus test that says more about each character than anything that the show is trying to do. Depending on the person looking at them, the returned seem unholy and satanic or pure and divine, wildly dangerous or pathetically vulnerable — and at the same time, there’s no sense that the show is trying to say Here Is a Story About Good and Evil.
AHP: I feel like The Returned is for people who like the politics of sci-fi but not the gruesomeness of sci-fi — which explains why a huge Star Trek: The Next Generation fan like me would like it. So much sci-fi turns the “problem” of weird phenomena into a reason to sublimate larger politics into, you know, planetary war, or zombies vs. humanity. There’s always a modicum of individuation (literally star-crossed lovers) but so much of what goes on in The Returned is a fairly simple calculus that has much more to do with grief than the supernatural. Someone died, you grieved, you moved on…. now what do you do when that person comes back?
J: Oh, yeah. That’s such a huge strength of the show; each “returned” person’s plot line feels so compelling and human and real that you frequently forget the sheer outlandishness of the central conceit. My boyfriend watched the first episode with me and refused to keep going because he is a monster who hates anything fantastical, but then two weeks later, he was like, very shyly, “Hey, so, uh, what’s happening on The Returned?” And for a half hour, he made me walk him through every single storyline and made guesses about what would happen next. The show really gets its hooks in.
Also, it’s a nice built-in feature of the conceit that audience skepticism and disbelief is represented and contained by the town’s reactions. It’s like the way Hurley functioned on Lost, except it’s all the townspeople filling that role, and they’re not wisecracking about time travel but genuinely horrified and wrecked by these people who’ve returned from the dead. So the outlandishness is fully on the table, and you’re free to just really feel for everyone (returned or not) and your empathy builds and builds as the show reveals backstory.
AHP: Let’s just say that there’s an already sympathetic, albeit slightly creepy character, whose backstory was so revelatory that I wept.
J: Speaking of Hurley, I meant to ask you: were you a Lost fan? The backstory thing, and the way each episode is sort of devoted to a single character while multiple plot lines play out, and of course the ensemble cast and the creepiness and the isolation and the metaphysical questions — that’s for sure my first reference for this show (to be fair, I’ve barely seen anything else sci-fi).
AHP: I tolerated Lost. I appreciate the narrative complexity, and I liked the first few seasons, but I also felt like the narrative was a bit hackneyed, which I never get with The Returned.
J: Totally hackneyed! Terrible dialogue sometimes, inelegant character arcs, asking the viewer to buy in to a level of ridiculousness this show would never. But nevertheless I was one of those Lost superfans (I NEVER CLAIMED TO BE COOL) and I think anyone else who shared that same fervor would really, really dig The Returned. Watching it I feel the same wild satisfaction about all my strongest TV desires being met simultaneously, the same radiant joy at the unity of weird and beautiful. I guess I’m a big sucker for setting — in The Returned the town is a character the way the island was for Lost — as well as for just that element of spun-out mystery that heightens to the point where you’re like “Hmm, this can’t possibly end in a completely satisfactory way” but don’t care.
AHP: It’s actually quite similar to Top of the Lake — another foreign television show set in a breathlessly beautiful setting (and involving something deeply emotionally unsettling) that you know, deep down, will never precisely wrap up in a wholly satisfying way. But I like those ragged edges: clean conclusions are always lies.
J: Absolutely. And I guess this is one way in which this show differentiates itself completely from Lost in a great way. Here, the mystery, the code-cracking, is not the point.
AHP: Okay let’s talk about the music. It is legit bewitching and 50% of the reason this show works.
J: It is perfect. Emotional enough that it communicates very directly but also subtle and complex enough that, even though there are just three or four recurring themes and they’re probably used in very similar ways in every episode and also I have them memorized, I can’t put a button on them like “Here’s the scary music,” “Here’s where we’re thinking about love.” Honestly, this feels like such a sweet spot for prog-rock/post-rock bands; the same way that ’90s bands like Duncan Sheik should just write Spring Awakenings till the end of time, I want a horror movie with music by 65 Days of Static, or Mars Volta (RIP).
AHP: And, as we have both noted, perfect work music.
J: Absolutely. It is focusing and it has the invisible effect of making you more emotionally invested, just like it does for the show.
AHP: Also I would watch the credits to this show on continuous repeat.
J: I’ve never skipped the opening credits once. Visually, too, they function like an epigraph or something.
AHP: The animals in the water! I’m transfixed.
AHP: And yes, outstanding point re: the way that the musical leitmotifs function: they’re not the “love theme” or the “horror theme”; it’s not as simply melodramatic or legible as that. And yes, all these bands should figure do this work and a.) please us tremendously and b.) fund their other work.
J: Yeah! It doesn’t feel like any sort of artistic capitulation or softening in this case. Actually, did you know that Mogwai had to write a lot of the score without seeing much of the script or any preliminary footage?
AHP: I feel like the producers were probably like: hey guys, do something eerie, but do your thing. And Mogwai was like “on it.”
J: Yeah, and then the writers took their cues from the music, they’ve said. It’s such a great example of how this sort of collaboration can lead to an elevation of the commercial material instead of the opposite.
AHP: Also this show is SO FRENCH. Lesbians being lesbians and no explicit politicization thereof; teens having sex and doing lots of shots and no moralization… I’m totally into it.
J: No moralization or salaciousness from ANY angle. Within the show’s world, the parents are realistic and respectful and so are the townspeople. And then, outside of the show’s world, the camera doesn’t linger for even a second on any of the titillating possibilities that will surely be drawn out to their cheesecake fullness in the American adaptation. That is maybe my fourth favorite aspect of this show, music being the first, setting being the second, weirdo mystery being the third, and then this restraint from “juiciness.”
AHP: Okay I have to admit that the French — and not even the French-ness, but the actual French language, is one of my favorite things. I have lapsed fluency and feel sad about that a lot, but all of these characters are vaguely traumatized and speak somewhat slowly, which makes me feel so, so great about my French. If you speak crappy French, you will be into this.
J: I second that! I have learned some nice idioms too. Cou-cou, c’est nous! sounds much nicer than Heyyyy, we’re home. Also another thing I enjoy is that everyone has great, French posture and self-possession.
AHP: And looks awesome wearing essentially the same thing everyday, which I’ve always viewed as the most enviable French attribute.
J: Absolutely. French women: this is a cry for help. Help us.
AHP: The overarching aesthetic of the show is gorgeous — all of the homes manage to be very postmodern and airy without being cold or dated, and the landscape is at once wild and dense and populated and quasi-urban. I can’t think of another town that I’ve wanted to live in this much — is that fair?
J: Yeah. Let’s go! The TV town is a composite of three separate real ones, and I went down a wormhole of looking them up, and they all look like the perfect places to exist. Also part of my love stems from the fact that I am a Mountains person as opposed to a Beach person, even though I love the beach. And this has the double whammy of Mountains plus Water.
AHP: I am also a Mountains person; this is why we like each other.
J: Wow, it’s so great that Emma is going to send us on a reporting trip to the Mountains in France. Thank you so much, Emma: you are truly a friend.
AHP: If you can’t fly me out of Walla Walla, it’s chill, I’ll drive to Seattle for the direct. And while aesthetics of the town are perfect, so are the aesthetics of the characters. In other words: these characters are HOTT.
J: The holy trinity of hotness. It was a very sensual experience putting all of them together in my fake online Photoshop. Before you ask, let me assure you that I have already thought about this long and hard: I would fuck Serge (center), kill Eyebrows (left) and marry Lena. I can’t wait to live with Lena for the rest of my life in the Mountains.
AHP: You and your Hot French Eyebrows Blasphemy! When we first started talking about this show and I was all into Hot French Eyebrows and you were like “Lena. End of story.”
J: LENAAAAAAAAAAAA. Oh my god. Lena. Lena is so hot. I also just like that character and how they treat her — her hotness is not a “thing” within the show at all, she’s not made to be particularly driven by calculations about boys or herself or anything. They just allow her to exist and act like a bored, gorgeous, nervy 19-year-old girl would.
AHP: No spoilers, but later in the series she has to wear a straight up early ’90s jean jumper, and she is still hot.
J: And in that episode there is a sexual encounter in which, under very tricky and “problematic” circumstances, her sexual desire is allowed space and agency in a way that feels really unusual.
AHP: And also wholly natural and without blame? I was really into that episode.
J: Absolutely. As its own thing, totally separate from whatever her partner in the scene was after. Which is an incredible way to represent sex.
AHP: Sexual desire as autonomous of partner? REVELATORY. Also manifest in The Fall and Top of the Lake, which is just another way of saying watch those shows.
J: Neither of which I have watched!!!!! I need to watch both of them. I do not watch enough TV; I have no business talking about it now. But anyway who cares about “TV,” I only want to watch The Returned. Another thing about it is that it’s only an 8-episode first season, so the mania will consume you quickly and then you can move on.
AHP: We can’t talk about extended plotlines, but this show does an amazing job of going beyond looks or actions and making you question what you thought, based on looks and societal expectations, how you would want/expect each character to function.
J: Yes. Like, it seems that the writers show an extraordinary restraint in not manipulating their characters in terms of sympathy and likability and viewer identification. The way that I don’t love or hate or long to be or be with any of them in that broad way that TV engenders so easily — the way that you’re never really rooting for anything specific to happen, because you know what does happen will be more real — it’s almost like watching a documentary, which is ridiculous, because the premise is so wack.
AHP: We are spoiling the first episode, so it’s safe to talk about Lena and Camille. They’re twins, but one died and the other went on living, so when the dead twin (Camille) comes back, she’s confronted with a vision of herself several years in the future (the living twin, Lena). I love how the series refuses to make them friends. Also: GENIUS CASTING.
J: Yeah, the scene where they see each other for the first time is so well-acted. And that’s another thing — there are only two characters out of an ensemble of more than a dozen who have ever, and only in a couple scenes, struck me as artificial.
AHP: I really cannot think of a false note in this entire series. How many shows can I say that about?
J: Same. SAME. Do you think we’ve convinced people to watch it yet? Do you think people are already watching this and just not talking about it? I’m so glad that you suggested this to me; when you said it was the best thing you’d seen all year I immediately downloaded the first episode and couldn’t have loved it more.
AHP: Readers, trust us on this one. Then you can be the person proselytizing about it at Christmas and thumbing your nose when the not one but two horrible American adaptations make their way to television. The French Returned is the legit Returned, and don’t say we didn’t warn you about it.