Does A&E's The Returned Live Up To The French Original?

Simon & Lena
Photo: Joseph Lederer/A&E.
Although bargaining is just one stage of grief, those of us who have lost someone always find our minds slipping back to it. "If only I could have just one more day with him/her..." The Returned, a television series that premieres tonight on A&E, plays off of that premise. Here, the resurrected aren't flesh-eating zombies. Instead, they appear to be [re]living, breathing versions of themselves as they were when they died. They want to be reintegrated into the lives of their loved ones, but they've already coped with their deaths and moved on. These newly returned versions instead play into Freud's notion of the uncanny, where it becomes too hard for their minds to rationalize and accept them in the same way as their original selves.

In a way, A&E's version of The Returned also functions as a journey into the uncanny valley — not just within the show itself, but also the series as a whole. The first episode is almost a shot-for-shot remake of its French predecessor of the same name (Les Revenants, a.k.a. The Returned). Sundance TV originally aired the first season 2013, and it's now also on Netflix. 

The French series is absolutely engrossing. The show's pacing is wonderfully slow and deliberate, and the score by Scottish band Mogwai adds a visceral effect to the tension and unease you feel while watching. Since the subject matter is so foreign, it almost feels more natural that it's in a foreign language. Having to read subtitles and listen to characters speaking French is yet another layer of disconnect between viewers and the already unfamiliar storylines. 

The fact that it's a French show also means it contains nudity, but in a non-gratuitous way. Bodies — both dead and alive — are depicted naked, further adding to the fundamental question being explored that it's not our corporeal selves that make us who we are. Again and again, the show begs the question of how we would respond if our bargaining worked, and we were allowed to spend more time with a loved one with whose loss we had already come to terms. How would we reconcile this new version of the deceased with the one we desperately loved and grieved for?

Further adding to the mystery is the fact that no one can leave the sleepy mountain town. The roads lead drivers in infinite, maddening loops. The mysterious town lies near a massive dam, which has burst before. In fact, the town was once completely submerged, and viewers are left wondering if it was successfully rebuilt, or everyone in the show is actually dead. The credits alone are a work of art, which, thankfully, the American version doesn't try to replicate. Just listen to the opening xylophone pings followed by a haunting cello and piano theme.

The French original won an International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in 2013, so it was only a matter of time, really, before an American remake appeared. The Returned is only one of many internationally acclaimed shows, including The Bridge, House of Cards, and The Killing, being redone for American audiences. 

Just like the dead characters who come back to life on the show, however, the American version of The Returned is accompanied by a plunge into the uncanny valley. It feels so similar to the original, yet something just isn't right. Perhaps it's because if you've seen the French version, watching the same characters speak English feels off. It's almost too accessible. The American version also takes place in a sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest, an area where another paranormal mystery's (Twin Peaks) presence looms large.

If you haven't seen the French original, though, A&E's version, which was adapted by Carlton Cuse (who's most well known for his work on Lost and Bates Motel), probably won't draw you in the same way its French predecessor does. From the very beginning, the pacing is too quick, starting with the beautifully smooth and fast aerial shots of Washington's sprawling evergreen forests. The score also includes songs with lyrics that create a warm, homey feel. This is a show about the unfamiliar, though, not a place for soft, inviting guitar music. The bar where much of the action takes place is populated with Portland-style hipsters, who never provide quite the appropriate background for the storylines.

Twins Camille & Lena
Photo: Stuart Petican/A&E.
The fourth episode (the last available for critics to screen ahead of the premiere) deviates the most from the French original. Its exposition is extremely heavy-handed, with too many discussions about the dead who have risen, and whether they're miracles or mistakes. One character contemplates the story of Lazarus of Bethany, asserting that we never actually learn how his sisters felt when their prayers for him to return were answered. They wouldn't have been happy, the character insists, because they'd know their brother had died, and this person who returned wasn't actually him. 

Camille, who died in a bus accident that her identical twin, Lena, would have also been in had she not faked sick that day, gets a lecture on survivor's guilt — she can't understand Lena's anger and confusion over her return. French Lena deals with the same emotions, but it's all demonstrated through her actions. The American Returned inserts an additional flashback where Lena lashes out in anger over her sister's dead body. The whole American adaptation feels that way — dulled and dumbed down — as if we can't put the pieces together ourselves, which is part of the French original's mastery. It's also the reason audiences all over the world continue to return and are eagerly awaiting season 2. 

Give A&E's uncanny facsimile a try, but if you're left feeling unsatisfied, I recommend tuning in to the French version on Netflix. There's just no replacing an original, even with a near-clone of itself. 

The Returned
airs Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on A&E. Les Revenants is on Netflix.

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