'The Returned' is must-see zombie TV

David Wiegand / San Francisco Chronicle /

Published Oct 31, 2013 at 05:00AM

“The Returned” 9 tonight, Sundance Channel

San Francisco — As good as “The Walking Dead” is, the U.S. hasn’t cornered the market on great zombie TV. After the first season of the superb BBC America series “In the Flesh,” the Sundance Channel will air the deservedly ballyhooed French series “The Returned,” beginning on Halloween. It is not to be missed, even if you don’t count yourself much of a fan of ambulatory corpses.

The eight-episode series, known as “Les Revenants” in France, is different than many zombie shows because it’s not so much about rotting flesh as it is about the less tangible but very real internal rot of a sort, the kind caused by fear and regret. It is a horror show, but the horror is more psychological than physical.

Set in a small, sleepy town in the French Alps, “The Returned” begins with a tragic school bus accident killing a number of children, including young Camille (Yara Pilartz). Four years later, her parents, Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), now separated, are still mourning, while Camille’s twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) has internalized her own profound sense of loss.

And then Camille reappears, walking into the house as if she’s just back from another day at school. Her parents react with a mixture of joy, confusion and a determination to keep the rest of the town from knowing Camille is back. Léna is so shattered by Camille’s return she virtually shuts her out of her life. While Camille has not aged, Léna is now four years older than her twin.

Soon, there are other “returnees” in the village — a young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier), who committed suicide a decade before, tracks down his former fiancee, Adèle (Clotilde Hesme), now living with the local police captain, Thomas (Samir Guesmi), and raising her daughter, Chloé (Brune Martin), who is also Simon’s daughter.

Julie (Céline Sallette), a young nurse, lives a solitary existence, having broken up with her girlfriend Laure (Alix Poisson), a police lieutenant. She still bears the physical and psychological scars of having been attacked by a cannibalistic serial killer a few years earlier. One day, a strange boy (Swann Nambotin) shows up at her apartment. She calls him Victor, although she doesn’t really know his name. He is “one of them” as well, but Julie isn’t afraid of him: To the contrary, he brings her out of her shell and she becomes determined to protect him at all costs.

The serial killer, Serge (Guillaume Gouix), is also back, having been killed by his brother, Toni (Grégory Gadebois), to prevent him from murdering other young women like Lucy (Ana Girardot), the pretty waitress at the pub Toni manages.

The reanimated dead don’t look like typical movie zombies. They look, instead, like typical residents of a French mountain village — at least for a while. And that makes it possible to keep their presence hidden for a time. But it’s a small town, and secrets are hard to keep.

Parents of other children who died in that bus crash become resentful that Camille is back and their own children are not. Thomas resents the reappearance of his fiancee’s former lover and the father of her child. Toni is tentatively relieved that Serge is back, assuaging his guilt for having killed him, but at the same time worried that Serge will go back to his murderous ways.

As the living find themselves having to cope with the presence of the dead, something almost as strange is happening with the lake created by the construction of a huge dam. The water level is decreasing on a daily basis, but no one can figure out where the water is going.

More to the point, as the water level goes down, it reveals a whole other village, which was flooded when the old dam burst. Many townspeople died in the flood. Others starved to death because the town was cut off and unable to obtain food. It’s as if an entire ghost town, a kind of Alpine Atlantis, is slowly coming back into view.

But what is the link to the returned? Is it merely metaphoric, or a direct result of the dead coming back to life?

The series, created by Fabrice Gobert and based on the 2004 film “They Came Back,” moves at an eerily slow pace, exquisitely enhanced by the moody beauty of the score by the Scottish post-rock group Mogwai. Yet every moment, no matter how seemingly placid, is tense with drama and meaning.

At first, we may ask why the dead have come back. Are there scores to be settled, things left unsaid or undone?

But soon, we find our focus drawn to the possibility that the living are the ones seeking things from the dead — to settle their own scores, to make peace with guilt, regret, emptiness. All of these unresolved issues, like the old village that existed in the murky silence of the man-made lake for all those years, cannot remain submerged forever.

There is a resolution of sorts at the end of the eight episodes — this isn’t the French equivalent of the first season of “The Killing.” But the door is left ajar for the second season, set to premiere in France next year.

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