Last Friday saw the second episode of the second series of French supernatural drama The Returned air in the UK. The show has its air of mystery fully intact – but judging by the first two episodes of the new run, it must start answering some questions or risk losing what made it so compelling in the first place.
If you saw The Returned when its first series was broadcast on Channel 4 in the summer of 2012, you’ll know that it gained a reputation for its brilliant mix of intrigue, beauty and strong characters that somehow came together to form a viewing experience you couldn’t quite describe. Set in a sleepy French village, it focussed on various previously-deceased individuals who suddenly started returning to life, and the impact of this on their families. This second series has now promised answers to various questions, like ‘What happened to half the inhabitants of the town at the end of the last series?’ and other larger ones such as ‘Why do people keep coming back to life?’ and ‘Just what is up with that creepy kid Victor?’
Well, at least we now know one thing – it ain’t giving up its big answers just yet. As of now we have yet more undead people and an extremely unnerving glimpse of something that looked like a zombie hiding in the woods. Also there was the small matter of a road which was puzzling all the town’s drivers as it now seemed to head into a forest and not wherever it did before.
So instead of providing exposition, as we were promised by The Returned’s director Fabrice Gobert at the end of the first series, the show seems intent on (at least for now) plunging us further into the fog. This approach is confusing enough seeing as it has been two years since it was last on the box, and as new characters turned up, I found myself forgetting who was supposed to be related to who and who had been dead or alive in the first place.
However, the second episode adopted the same tactics as the first, with very little being given away and (mostly) even more puzzling layers being added to a show which is already fairly perplexing. There has still been no explanation as to how those kidnapped at the end of the first series escaped – which has moved from an intriguing omission to an irritating one. And with the re-visitation of Pierre’s and Victor’s dark and entangled past, it feels as though the show is treading water, out of ideas.
What’s more, there’s new character Berg (Laurent Lucas, who some may recognise from the earlier French import of 2015, the resolutely grim but also decidedly average police drama Witnesses), who has supposedly been brought in to speed along the plot and force some revelations out of the woodwork. But so far he has done little more than stare at diagrams of the dam, go hiking around the picturesque landscape and stare into the middle distance. It all looked very nice but meant very little. I hope the same will not come to be said of the whole show.
I remember saying out loud at one point during the first series that if they just continued to find undead people and brought a new character back each week, that would be enough to keep me watching. But the problem now is that the individuals have become a seething mass. There are hordes of I-hesitate-to-say-dead people congregating in the woods and outside houses, even going so far as to chase people around, and so I fear (perhaps aptly) that the show could soon descend into stereotypes.
I’m sure all the strangeness means something, but I’d rather it meant something sooner rather than later. I know it’s a director’s right to make a show go at a pace which they feel is right for the story, but by the same token I don’t feel it’s unfair to expect some return on a drama as strongly calibrated as this one, in which viewers have likely emotionally invested quite a lot. I fear that one of the most promising – and different – shows in years may now be content to fade into obscurity. But I hope I’m wrong.
The mystery was an integral part of the first series, and part of what made it special, but the show must start providing answers. That’s not to say that in future weeks it will not – indeed I hope it does – but too much mystery may start to have viewers wondering why they bothered. The Returned started with too much promise for it to fizzle out, or for its eventual explanations to not live up to the mark (no pun intended). However, with a show as complex as this one, perhaps that is inevitable. But nobody wants that.
It may seem harsh that I’m writing this after merely the first two episodes, but I’m just pre-empting the fact that after all the beauty of the first series, I truly don’t want The Returned to add up to some very nice-looking window-dressing telly which is ultimately empty and unsatisfactory. But I’m still hopeful that it can return to form.