The Returned (Les Revenants) Gives the Dead Life
I may be overcritical of zombie shows and movies given the oversaturation in recent years. I think that explorations of the zombie genre has to really show me something special, something different, to get my attention. I was very hesitant to start a show that my friend called a zombie/horror show. I had seen The Walking Dead and didn’t care for it. For me, at least, The Walking Dead walks too far over the line into melodrama instead of sticking to what could be a winning formula of action and plot mixed with unique characters that the audience can sympathize with. The Walking Dead simply doesn’t give us time to love the characters. And if your characters are easily replaced on the next episode, what are we watching you for? So, needless to say, I was hesitant to start The Returned (Les Revenants). But, after a little convincing, I decided to give it a chance. In fact, the only reasons I was somewhat interested were that it was French, and Mogwai composed the soundtrack. After seeing how Explosions in the Sky impacted the NBC series Friday Night Lights, I was intrigued by the prospect of another post-rock band laying the groundwork for a TV show. It was not enough for me to jump up in excitement, but it was enough to temper my doubts long enough to give it a chance.
My goal in this review (preview?) is not to spoil the secrets of the show (of which an unsatisfying amount are left unexplained by the end of the season), but to maybe expose enough to make you go out and watch it. Part of the fun of any show is putting together the pieces to the puzzle. Do you remember putting together a puzzle just to realize some of the pieces were frustratingly similar in size but didn’t quite fit? Everything you believe this show to be begins to fall away in pieces like this. I mean this as a compliment. The roles of each character shifts and changes as the series moves on. No one is stuck in the role of a villain or hero entirely. We get a complex mix of characters with different motivations and weaknesses depending on the situation they are put in. And so, we actually get a series that gives us intricate characterization without the reliance on cheap plot devices or overwrought emotional soliloquies. Everything is uneasy and unpredictable.
There are no villains in this show, at least not in a classical sense. I could make a case for every character on the show being heroic or necessary in some way. Sure, there are bad decisions that are made, even morally outrageous ones, but what we are left with is what any good zombie show or movie should be about: How does a group of people deal with the supernatural in a world previously devoid of that? How do they make sense of a world that has suddenly changed? And really, what are zombies but people that used to be humans, like us? Isn’t it their humanity that makes them so terrifying? The most frightening moments of Les Revenants are not the stark and brutal violence that pepper the show sporadically. The empathy of being right there with each character’s utter desperation and loneliness starts to overwhelm you. What’s scarier—the monster that snarls in front of you or the monster you think might be beneath your bed, in your closet or within yourself? Les Revenants will give you an answer. And you may not like it.
At the end of this short series, I was left with as many questions as the show had answered. I’d love to go on and on about how the music and setting take on characters of their own, or the religious and environmental implications the show makes, but I’ll refrain for the sake of your discovery and curiosity. Instead, I’ll make one last plea. If you like the shows Twin Peaks or Lost, or you like mystery, music-driven scenes, characters you can care about, or a twist on a very tired genre, you should watch Les Revenants immediately. To any skeptics, go forth with your skepticism intact. This show just might win you over and make you feel like there is still life in the zombie genre.
The Returned (Les Revenants) is streaming on Netflix Instant.
Wes Solether is a poet/professor from Lombard, Illinois. You can find his work in Samizdat, Ignatian Literary Magazine, and Epigraph among others. He runs Bitterzoet Press and Magazine with his Co-Editor, Pattie.