The word “atmospheric” gets used a lot in television and film reviews, but few dramas deserve the adjective more than “The Returned.” Dialogue and set design are minimal, and those hoping for lots of factual exposition should look elsewhere. People stare out windows quite a bit; given that this is a French drama, it’s not unusual for characters to smoke more than they speak. And yet “The Returned’s” willingness to be quietly observant as its characters try to understand the calamities that have befallen them allows it to do a fantastic job of creating a consistent mood that manages to be romantic, foreboding and creepy all at once.
The first season of “The Returned,” which is very much worth looking up on Netflix, can be summed up rather succinctly: People who had been dead and buried began turning up — apparently healthy and with no memory of their demises — in a remote town in a mountainous region of France. Earlier this year, A&E aired an Americanized version of the tale (known as “Les Revenants” in France), but it was more concerned with incident than mood. It didn’t work, because the plots within each episode of the original aren’t exactly dense.
And yet the French version of the show does succeed because it puts the audience in the same existentially challenging position as the townsfolk and the “dead” themselves: Nobody is quite sure what the rules of this odd situation are, and that confusion continues and is even amplified in season two. As it deepens various stories and introduces new characters with typical restraint and delicacy, “The Returned” continues to be wonderfully effective at exploring the difficult emotional terrain around grief, longing, anger and love. One does not watch this show as much as enter its dreamscape and let its mood of prickly, yearning heartache take over.
The sturdiest of the new storylines involves a government inspector who arrives to figure out why large swathes of the town were flooded. There’s a large dam nearby, and that structure had some problems in season one, but the first two episodes of the second go-round don’t get close to delivering any answers about the flood, nor does the show spend much time explaining the arrival of those long thought dead — who keep showing up.
By this point, some of the town’s residents have theories about the not-quite-alive status of their former neighbors, but don’t quite know what to do about any of the strange things that are occurring. After the flood, another town faction has taken up residence in the Helping Hands shelter, and most of those people appear to be very much alive, but there’s an unsettling sense of menace about the place regardless. That mood, like everything else, is captured perfectly by the brooding soundtrack by the band Mogwai.
Like “Rectify” — another sterling Sundance TV drama — and HBO’s knotty but ultimately fascinating “The Leftovers,” “The Returned” seeks to put the audience in a particular state of mind and leave lingering questions. Such dramas can be ultimately frustrating if they build up complicated mythologies that demand at least a few answers, but “The Returned,” in particular, can get away with relying on mood and tone because its poetic intentions have been clear from the start. For this show, plot matters less than philosophical exploration, and far from being a maddening or condescending stance, the tender curiosity “The Returned” shows to its characters and their dilemmas makes it quietly heartbreaking at times. (It can also be dryly witty on occasion: It’s hard not to at least grin at the sight of a “zombie” smoking and sighing in a distinctly French manner.)
There is the sense in “The Returned” that something is deeply out of balance, that nature has become deranged in some unspeakable and unknowable way. Scientists say that forests need occasional fires in order to renew themselves, and in that vein of rejuvenation based on destruction, these people should be processing grief regarding loved ones — or appreciating the relief they felt when a difficult or unloved friend and family member passed away. But something is not right in this world, and no one can move on. It’s a limbo of muted tones of blue and brown, where the buildings are featureless and plain but the residents’ simmering emotions are raw and sometimes flare into violence.
Though it is deliberate in pace and and often low-key, this show does supply what a drama returning on Halloween absolutely must have: scares. The objects people stumble across in the woods, the physical transformation of a character whose wild beard matches his strained mental state, the hard stares of the town’s resident creepy child, Victor; those moments and images linger in the memory. What “The Returned” understands is that explaining too much about Victor would undercut his mystery — and his ability to send chills through grown adults with a look steeped in the series’ peerless ambiguity.