Before I go any further, let me give you this one clarification: I was one of the fans immeasurably disappointed with ABC TV’s LOST. Don’t get me wrong: I loved that show! It’s just that I, like so many others I’ve met online, were more than a bit frustrated that the showrunners left so many questions unanswered in the final estimation. Yes, I get all of the gobbledygook about how “it was always meant to be about the characters” and not the mysteries, but it was the mysteries that fueled so much speculation. At the end of the day, I didn’t honestly give two shakes about Kate’s family beyond the Island; what mattered to me was how all of these people overlapped in their lives prior to winding up stranded and maybe even why they did.
I bring this up only because in reviewing some of what’s been written online about THE RETURNED many folks have drawn comparisons to LOST. True, these characters also get further definition by way of flashbacks. True, these characters seem to be linked in ways far more surprising than your average, run-of-the-mill neighbor or casual acquaintance. But as far as I can tell the comparisons generally stop there. Because THE RETURNED has already crossed that line that LOST’s showrunners refuted for so long – that death and the afterlife is central to the stories being told – I’m willing to keep my disbelief suspended so long as the storytelling remains so richly interesting.
More after the break …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final, unblemished assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In a quiet French town nestled between several mountaintops, those who have died some time ago have suddenly returned to their families. They haven’t changed. They haven’t even aged. They’ve returned looking very much like they did so long ago. However, they’re still not quite themselves, and the threat they bring with them very well might unravel reality as we know it before all is said and done.
Yes, THE RETURNED resembles LOST in that it presents and develops a quality stable of interesting characters; but one of the chief differences between them is that – to a very high degree – we know what we need to know about them not long after they’re introduced into this mythology. See, what would appear to matter most is that these characters have died. In many cases, we’re given the particulars of their deaths, many of them relatively grisly (these are not your average demises, and many of them relate to moments of extreme emotion being attached to said endings). However, upon their return, these resurrected people essentially begin a quest to make things right so far as their perspective allows them.
While their various friends and family members have moved on – they’ve all basically been through the various stages of grief and to a large degree have found some peace in present day – the Returned have not. The precious who, what, where, when or why they’ve come back may be modestly shrouded in mystery, but the audience is still given some sort of motivation that leads one to conclude that the journey they’re on relates somehow to ‘resolution’ for whatever troubled them while they were alive. It isn’t like they’re ‘getting even’; rather, they’re trying to put right what they see went wrong with their various deaths.
That said, this first season of THE RETURNED is probably not going to go down with everyone who stumbles across it like I did (I didn’t watch it while it aired on IFC but instead discovered it via binge-watching the DVD set). The pacing is quite slow – more so in the early episodes as there appears to be a good amount of backstory the showrunners wanted to establish – and, as the mysteries get introduced one by one, they’re really not given much ado. For example, there is some possible tie-in to animal carcasses (of which several turn up through-out the season), but it’s never quite sufficiently addressed; instead, a carcass shows up, a question is raised, and then the plot moves forward. Those who are sticklers for detail (such as those who want to know where the body came from) are likely going to be perplexed very early on.
However, what THE RETURNED does exceedingly well is craft an overwhelming sense of dread throughout so much of these proceedings. Families once torn apart are suddenly forced back together, and none of this happens without additional heartache, heartbreak, or other dire consequence. Lives are ripped apart once more, and before they can even begin to adequately deal with their emotions the entire town finds itself imperiled by an even greater threat (which I refuse to spoil for you).
Thankfully, THE RETURNED is the kind of show that lends itself to speculation both wild and mundane. As I don’t think a review is the place to really expose theories about what’s going on, I will mention one word that kept coming up when I and my lovely wife talked about it after finished the season: resurrection. There’s something to the circularity of life – as well as the circularity of these people interwoven existences – that gets ample exploration here. What that’ll all mean once the program’s secrets are revealed I honestly couldn’t say. But I’d like to think that the eventual destination will be worth the wild ride they took us on.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Yes, it’s always possible that when THE RETURNED returns it may suffer the fate of ABC TV’s LOST, meaning not all of the questions it raised will get sufficiently addressed by the time all is said and done. But – unlike LOST – it wouldn’t appear as if this program could go on for four, five, or six seasons. I wouldn’t want to say more out of fear of spoiling it, but – so far as this critic is concerned – THE RETURNED is time well spent ruminating on death and resurrection.