When FOX's “Gracepoint” premiered this fall, I was at a loss for what to say about a show that was a beat-for-beat, and often shot-for-shot, remake of a series I knew and liked very much in “Broadchurch.” The argument FOX and the “Gracepoint” producers made was that their show wasn't made for the hundred thousand-odd viewers who watched “Broadchurch” on BBC America, but for the potentially much larger audience that might be engaged by the story and the fine cast assembled to act it out, and I could see the merit to that(*), even as it was impossible for me to divorce myself from knowledge of the original.
(*) Technically, FOX was right: the “Gracepoint” audience was MUCH larger than the American “Broadchurch” audience, but was still a failure by broadcast network standards.
“The Returned,” A&E's remake of the the French series “Les Revenants” – which has already aired on Sundance under the title “The Returned,” and was one of my favorite shows of 2013 – is also nearly identical in the early going to its source material, and producer Carlton Cuse has made the same argument the “Gracepoint” producers had about wanting to expose this great story to a wider audience. (He has the added benefit of the original being in a foreign language, given our unfortunate national allergy to reading subtitles.) He even plans to start deviating from “Les Revenants” around episode six, which is roughly where “Gracepoint” started introducing its few changes from “Broadchurch.”
But where I couldn't separate “Gracepoint” from my memories of “Broadchurch” and say how well it would function for people coming to the material fresh, it's easy to do with the American “Returned,” which recreates the story and imagery from the French show but misses what's by far its most important part: the hypnotic tone.
The story: in an isolated mountain community, the dead begin returning to life – not as zombies, but looking and largely acting as they were when they died years before. We see teenager Camille (India Ennenga) try to reunite the family that was torn apart in her absence, see musician Simon (Mat Vairo) treated as a ghost by the fiancee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he left behind, and watch nurse Julie (Sandrine Holt) take in a mysterious boy she calls Victor (Dylan Kingwell) who seems to know more than anyone else about this strange phenomenon.
It's an intriguing idea, but not wildly original, especially since this version of it has the bad timing to debut nearly a year to the day after the premiere of ABC's “Resurrection,” which told the same basic story inspired by different source material(**). “Resurrection” was briefly a big hit, suggesting an appetite for the premise, but its audience quickly dwindled, suggesting the audience was looking for a more interesting take on that premise.
(**) Confusing matters further: that source material is a novel called… “The Returned.”
A&E's “The Returned” unfortunately isn't that. It hits all the basic story points of “Les Revenants” and has a good cast – some actors closely resembling their French counterparts, others impressive for the way they resemble each other, like Camille and her sister Lena (Sophie Lowe). But the plot was by far the weakest part of the original show, often involving characters staring off into space and refusing to explore the nature and ramifications of all the dead men and women walking through their town. What made it work was the mood of the piece, and the way it felt as alien and disorienting as the experience must be for all the locals welcoming back dead loved ones. Even though the visuals are often the same, everything moves a bit briskly, removing the eerie stillness that was so important, and the musical score is much more generic than the unsettling one the Scottish band Mogwai provided for “Les Revenants.”
Take away the various visual, audio and tonal flourishes that distinguished the original, and you have a bunch of familiar American actors – the cast also includes Mark Pellegrino, Jeremy Sisto, Kevin Alejandro and Michelle Forbes – standing around slack-jawed, demonstrating minimal curiosity over why this is happening and what it means. Present it as a waking nightmare like the French show did, and you get away with a thin narrative; tell the same story in even slightly more generic form (American Victor isn't a patch on his incredibly creepy French inspiration), and you have some of the weaker periods on “Lost” where Jack refused to ask Ben good questions about what the island was.
“The Returned” will premiere Monday night at 10, after the third season of the Cuse-produced “Bates Motel,” which has taken a smarter approach to adapting brilliant material. Rather than simply mimicking the original “Psycho,” Cuse and Kerry Ehrin took a few key elements from the movie and set off to tell their own story with them. It's not always perfect, but it's usually interesting and doesn't constantly invite unflattering comparisons to a masterpiece.
“Les Revenants” is barely known here in the states, so it's not exactly like trying to duplicate an iconic film. (Besides, Gus Van Sant already did that.) But because “Resurrection” is already around, and because Cuse and producer Raelle Tucker have copied the thin substance and not the rich style of their French predecessors, “The Returned” will likely feel like an uninspired imitation of something to anyone watching.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org