What I'm Watching Now: The fantastic anti-zombie drama 'The Returned'

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When is a zombie not a zombie? Do you have to be a full-fledged skull-munching, low-moaning, slow-walker to qualify? Or is being “undead” more of a philosophical problem, one that’s less about the flesh than it is about the braaain?

My coworkers and I have been debating this lately, because many of us are addicted to the French drama The Returned, one of the coolest, creepiest new shows on TV. (It premieres Halloween night on Sundance. Watch it now so you’re up to speed when Carlton Cuse of Lost adapts it for American television.) It’s nothing like The Walking Dead. So everyone wants to know: Can you really call it a zombie drama if nobody’s corpse is rotting?

Watching the drama unfold — slowly, moodily, over a goosebumpy soundtrack by Mogwai — you might find yourself waiting for some nightstalker to suddenly flip out and gorge himself on pancreas and spleen, just to stop everything from feeling so impossibly chic, so impeccably French. But The Returned strips away the usual conventions of the genre, which is exactly what makes it so deeply unsettling. What’s left is an affecting meditation on grief. The story begins with a hold-your-breath shot of school bus careening off an Alpine cliff, with children trapped inside. (I got flashbacks of The Sweet Hereafter.) Four years later, as the victims’ families gather for a group therapy session, one of the children who was killed in the crash comes back: 15-year-old Camille (Yara Pilartz) suddenly shows up inside her mother’s house, ravenously hungry — but only for spaghetti. Soon, others like Camille start appearing all over town. There’s Simon (Pierre Perrier), the sexy drummer with the Strokes haircut, who’s searching for his fiance, unaware that she’s now engaged to another man. There’s Victor (Swann Nambotin), the strange little boy who lurks in bus stops. Oh, and there’s Serge (Guillaume Gouix), the serial killer who guts his victims and snacks on their organs. Uh… yum?

But despite Serge’s fondness for human paté, none of the “returned” are particularly zombie-like. (This seems to be a trend lately: just look at the perfectly preserved dead boy in ABC’s upcoming series Resurrection, or the lifelike teenagers in BBC America’s In the Flesh.) They’re all impossibly young, with apple cheeks and dewy eyes and stylish, maggot-free outfits. They use actual words rather than just vowel sounds, and they’re able to convey real emotions beyond “vaguely starving” or “frustrated that I must drag this decaying foot behind me.” Yes, they’ve been resurrected for mysterious reasons — it has something to do with rising dam levels, an erratic power supply, and other things that make people who work for the French government shout, “Zut Alors!” — but other than that, they’re pretty normal. “Am I some kind of zombie?” Camille asks the local priest, Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier). “No, you’re not some kind of zombie,” he replies. “Than what am I?” she asks. The answer? Something much scarier. Sadder, too. Maybe she’s just like the rest of us.

Camille is neither dead nor alive — which means she’s not all that different from your typical teenager. That’s part of what makes her character so heartbreaking. She sleepwalks through her days, hoping that someone will notice her, then wishing that they’d stop staring when they do. She’s desperate to reconnect with her sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), who’s a little too old and warm-blooded to really understand Camille now. “Do you have any idea how it feels to be me?” Camille yells at Lena. “I don’t care!” Lena spits back. “You don’t exist!” Now, maybe it’s true Camille doesn’t exist, but don’t all teenagers feel that way? She spends her nights sucking down cigarettes and playing chicken with local boys’ affections, including those of Lena’s ex-boyfriend, Frédéric (Matila Malliarakis). When her parents scold her for staying out late, she shrugs, “What can happen to me? I’m already dead.” Like most high school girls, she thinks she’s immortal. Unlike most high school girls, she’s right.

When someone like Camille dies in your typical zombie drama, they’re lost for good, immediately transformed into The Enemy. Family members can’t be blamed for wanting to light them on fire, or drop an Egyptian obelisk on them. But The Returned doesn’t let the loved ones off so easy. They’re left with real options, and the show forces you to wonder to which one you’d choose yourself. What to do? Kill yourself so that you can be with your beloved forever? Run to a priest for guidance? (After all, as Lena points out, Jesus was one of the first zombies, risen from the grave.) Question who’s really alive in this world and who’s not? That last thought troubles Julie (Céline Sallette), a good Samaritan who cares for Victor: she starts to worry if she might be just as dead inside as he is. Even if you accept the “returned” as they are, there’s another problem: what if they’re not like you remembered? It’s human nature to make dead people into saints, but when the undead return with all of their flaws intact, it’s so much harder to think of them fondly. For Camille’s parents, who separated after her funeral, as well as for Simon and his ex-fiance, the idea of getting a second chance to revive an old relationship just makes everything all the more painful, especially since nothing has changed.

Deep down, this is a drama about nostalgia. Beautifully shot and darkly lit, in muted blues and greys, it looks more like a surreal memory than real life. Check out the lovely, street-light-illuminated make-out scene between two lesbians in leather catsuits, or the sad, beautiful shots of a rosy-lipped Camille puffing away on a cigarette. You can practically see the time fading before you, turning into the past, even though nobody’s aging.

The Returned speaks to our inability to let go of what’s already gone. We live in an era when the past and the present seem to happen simultaneously. Pop culture feeds on its own history, only to make it new again. (It’s no accident that The Returned references Twin Peaks, both in its woodsy noir setting, and in the so-called “American Diner” where some characters hang out, as if they could order a slice of Agent Cooper’s cherry pie.) YouTube clips and MP3 archives allow us to jump back and forth in time with the click of a button. It’s totally normal for a hologram of the late rapper Tupac to perform alongside the living, breathing Eminem at Coachella. And it’s also the perfect time for the dead and the undead to co-exist. So maybe The Returned still qualifies as a new ­zombie classic, even without the munching of entrails. It’s a haunting tribute to the lost loves that feed on your brain forever, because they’re never really lost.

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