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The Returned – Channel 4, Sundays 9pm

tvHaving seen the trailers with the mountain road in the Alps, I knew that this was basically about the undead returning to their small town. I also knew that it was French, so was bound to be full of sex, and dripping with class and mystery, and full of skinny girls with big eyes and hair.

Apart from this, I didn’t know what else to expect. The undead returning from a coach trip is not your usual premise for a Sunday night drama. As the opening sequence played out, I could have been wondering whether what was to come would be a ghost story, or one of mass hysteria, or of medical miracle? But I wasn’t. I was too busy gaping at the blue-grey mountains casually flung with snow, wound through with the loneliness of the man made ribbon of a road. It was soooo beautiful and melancholy.

Slotted neatly into all this beauty was the accident, which, seeing that we all knew it was going to happen, was efficiently and mercifully dispatched with in about a minute, before we cut to the present day. This was also beautiful and sad, and other worldly, set and lit alternately like a Professor Layton game come to life: little pitch roofed chalets; panelled and green painted interiors; amber on dark streetlights; pale grey mornings; but edged with echoes of a more modern, urban world: a smoky night club, a garish underpass, airy square houses, low rise flats,

Episode one introduced us to: a family with a teenage daughter lost in the coach crash; a young man returning and trying to find his lover; a small, mute boy; an old man living by himself; a young woman, who seems to be some kind of health worker. Being a small town, all their stories intertwine in some way, and the main focus of episode one was on Camille, the teenage girl lost to her father, mother and sister Léna.

Camille was the first to return. And it could all have gone wrong very quickly at this point, but it didn’t. Fortunately, this was far too intelligent a drama to linger on the motions of disbelief, but moved quickly onto the questions regarding how people would react if these astonishing events really happened to them:

  • What would you do if you woke up and found that four years of life had disappeared?
  • How would you feel if everyone else had grown up around you, but you had not?
  • What would you do if you came back and there was nowhere for you to go?
  • What would you do if you had prayed every day for your dead daughter to return, and she did?
  • What would you do if you could not accept someone’s return?

Holding together all these struggles and dramas was Tension. Tension was everywhere – Dramatic tension, public tension between the grieving relatives on how to commemorate the dead, private tensions between family members. These was also the tension of the unseen, lots of watching, lots of shady being. We watched characters from behind one of those round spy hole things, without knowing a first who was watching. We watched characters as a stalker might, perfectly still, perfectly silent.

There was a point about half way through, when I wondered if it was just going to be tension, the sense of danger just a tease. After all, this was only episode one. Episode one in a small Alpine town. They wouldn’t be showing us any of the really hard stuff till later on in the series, would they? They’d be holding things back in reserve, right? And nothing really dangerous could happen in this small town, could it, not when you were just minutes from beauty in every direction you could go?

Anyway, it turns out I was wrong. The danger and the dark were real. It got a lot more exciting. It got a lot more than exciting; it was violent, and the violence was shocking, so unexpected and undeserving were the victims.

Alongside this, the focus on Camille and her family became sadder and sadder, and more and more tender. The ache and the loss coming back for both sisters, not only their loss from the past, but new losses the had never imagined.

The deeper we went in, the more unfolded, and with that, just how much there was still concealed.

Can’t wait for Episode 2.

Update

There was a moment during Episode 2 when Léna signalled her acceptance of Camille’s return by saying that she thought she had met someone like Camille: “Je crois qu’il n’est-pas,” which I thought was a stunning expression.

The subtitles announced, “I think he is dead.” Which is probably at least partly why it is impossible to imagine a similar drama being made in the UK.

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