Don't miss it. "The Returned" (8 p.m. CT Oct. 31, Sundance; 4 stars out of 4) is far and away the most thoughtful and thought-provoking series I've watched this year.
You just know things are going to get strange when within the first five minutes a once-dead butterfly breaks free of the glass case in which it has been carefully displayed. Yet that beautiful and predictive image comes only after a bus carrying dozens of schoolchildren and their teachers inexplicably drives off a steep cliff in the mountains of France.
Based on the 2004 film "Les Revenants," this eight-episode, sub-titled series has been called a zombie tale because many of its characters, deceased but differing in age and dates of death, somehow return to an idyllic mountain town and attempt to carry on their lives. They're a bit confused, famished and unable to sleep, but otherwise they show no signs of zombie-like decay or a desire to eat human flesh.
In other words, they're not your traditional zombies of schlock movies or "The Walking Dead." Director and co-writer Fabrice Gobert isn't interested in gruesome zombie attacks or skull-crushing zombie deaths. The shocks he delivers are more cerebral, but no less powerful.
Gobert explores the grief and loss felt when someone close to us is taken too soon and what happens when everything we thought we knew about life and death is upended when they reappear.
"Our existence is not limited to our time on Earth," says Pierre (Jean-François Sivadier), who runs the Helping Hands shelter. He wants to comfort with the words, but it sounds more like a warning.
Like many characters, Pierre keeps a stunning secret. Those secrets are slowly and unnervingly revealed to a haunting score by Scottish band Mogwai.
Each episode is titled after a character. The premiere, "Camille," follows one of the bus accident victims (Yara Pilartz) and examines the effect her return has on her parents (Anne Consigny, Frédéric Pierrot), who want to hide her lest someone find out about their miracle, and sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), who reacts with equal parts revulsion, anger and fear.
There's also Simon (Pierre Perrier), who was killed 10 years previously on the way to his wedding, now searching for his then-fiancee, Adele (Clotilde Hesme), who is engaged to a local police captain. An eerie child (Swann Nambotin) won't talk, but when he follows Julie (Celine Sallette) home, strange things begin to happen. (See the clip below.) Years ago, Julie was the only victim to survive a string of brutal murders which have now begun again, suggesting the killer has returned from the dead.
As more people return to the living, the water level behind a local dam begins to drop, an unexplained phenomenon that compounds the atmosphere of dread and unease.
I don't want to give away too many specifics because the individual stories crisscross in intricate, sinister and spectacular ways. I'm not even sure "The Returned" will provide a solid conclusion, or whether it leaves us with a cliffhanger to be revealed in the already-ordered second season.
I have no doubt I'll be satisfied with either. After all, there may not be answers to the questions posed by "The Returned"—at least not easy ones.
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