TV review: Pleasantly surprised by a very unexpected return of the zombies

The French series The Returned is a proper ghost story instead of a zombiefest

Saturated with atmosphere: The Returned moved glacially but packed a lot of story into its opening episode

Saturated with atmosphere: The Returned moved glacially but packed a lot of story into its opening episode

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:00

I was well into the first episode of The Returned (Channel 4, Sunday), enjoying the Frenchness of it all – moody lighting, meaningful stares, cryptic dialogue – before I realised I was watching a zombie drama. It was more than slightly disconcerting, as, apart from the occasional peek at the unambiguously named The Walking Dead (which US critics have nominated for programme of the year: there’s a lot of love for zombies out there), it’s a genre I tend to avoid.

In the first scene of The Returned we saw a teenager, Camille, plunge over an Alpine ravine in her school bus. Even when she appeared back home, four years after the accident, it wasn’t entirely clear that she was undead. But as Camille went about her teenage business of snacking, wondering if there was hot water for a bath and apologising for being late home from the school trip, her mother understandably freaked out and summoned her estranged husband, Jerome.

But then a bereavement counsellor arrived, talked to Camille and used the word “resurrection”. Soon other dead people were appearing all over the ghostly-quiet French town, each looking in rude health.

There was Simon, standing in front of his gravestone. (We, and maybe he, learned that he died in 2002.) He was back in search of his girlfriend, who had moved on. She felt his presence, as the bereaved do, but wasn’t quite ready for him to knock on her door.

There was old Mr Costa, so shocked by the return of his dead wife after decades that he set fire to his mountain cabin and jumped into the town’s dam. When the firefighters put out the flames they found no trace of her body.

There was the mute boy who arrived at the doctor’s apartment. He might hold the key to the whole thing – in the final scene we see that he caused the bus crash – or could the key be a brutal murder in an underpass?

The Returned – or Les Revenants in France, where it was hugely popular last year – moved glacially but packed a lot of story into its atmosphere-saturated opener. The central question is why the dead have returned. There’s no hint yet, but presumably over the eight episodes we’ll find out.

As the themes of grief and loss rose to the surface, the Mogwai soundtrack a perfect accompaniment to the building eeriness, it started to feel more like a complex ghost story than your typical eyeball-hanging-out-of-the-socket zombiefest. It’s one to watch.

The final episode of the Belfast-set serial-killer drama The Fall (RTÉ One, Sunday; BBC Two, Monday) was even tenser than the four episodes that had gone before. In the end the killer, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, in a career calling card of a role), escaped in the family-man way he had presented to the world, heading for the ferry with wife and kids in their packed car, looking like any other family off on holidays.

There were several points in the cleverly constructed episode when it looked like he’d be caught, including a hold-your-breath moment when he presented himself at the police station for routine questioning. The evidence was falling into place for DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), but there were many women in his life who could, at any moment, figure it out too: his wife, the teenage babysitter, the bereaved woman he was counselling, even his young daughter, who had seen so much.

When it stuck to the hunt for the serial killer, The Fall worked. Its subplots were less successful, particularly the side story of a corrupt policemen involved in a drug and prostitution ring with a bad-boy son of a local crime boss. It felt like an elaborate, unnecessary detour, mainly because Gibson was only peripherally involved, and The Fall is her show.

And there were clangers in the script every week that rang out like rocks landing on a corrugated-steel roof. In this last episode Spector called Gibson. Having told him that his crimes were “just misogyny” – I know she was giving him credit for being clever, but really – she went on: “We’re both alike, you and me. Both driven by a will for power, a desire to control everything and everyone. Obsessive, ruthless, living and breathing moral relativism.”

Nobody would have expected the cool, calculating Gibson – Anderson has created a compelling cop – to say, “Wotcha, you’re nicked, mate,” but the dialogue sounded as stilted as the device of a phone conversation to wrap up the plot.

The Fall has been recommissioned, so it’s not the last we’ll see of Gibson – maybe even of Spector. A clever cliffhanger.

The children in Child Genius (Channel 4, Tuesday) ranged from irritating to precocious to downright weird – always the way in high-IQ-kids-on-the-telly territory.

The children, mostly with IQs in the top 0.1 per cent of the population, were filmed as they prepared to take part in a competition run by Mensa to find the UK’s ultimate child genius.

There is Shrinidhi, the under-12 world Scrabble champion, whose passion for books extends to sniffing or even licking the one she loves most. And Hugo, a hyperactive 10-year-old whose obsession with trains makes for testing journeys as he loudly details his encyclopaedic knowledge of statistics about tracks, engines and timetables.

It’s the first in a four-part series, and the tone is jaunty. The pushy parents are more fascinating than the children. “It all amounts to a five-year plan,” said mum Hilary, who makes eight-year-old Joshua clock up 50 hours of chess practice a week to reach her, ahem his, goal of becoming a chess grandmaster before his 13th birthday. “I’m excited for you to get back to chess,” she said consolingly after he had been eliminated in the first round of the Mensa competition, his eyes like saucers filled with worry and failure.

You could almost hear the therapy sessions 30 years hence, as the children try to come to terms with how their hothouse childhoods – and the filming of them for a TV documentary series – had affected their lives.

Only one set of parents seemed in any way likeable, or even people you could bear to meet at the supercompetitive school gate. Hugo’s mum and dad insisted on music lessons – in the trumpet, possibly the least sexy instrument – even though the aim of the lessons is to broaden his interests so that maybe, his mum said, he can join an orchestra, meet like-minded people and “get a shag out of it”. “When the time comes,” she quickly added, as Hugo threw a tantrum about having to play. “He’s in the top 5 per cent of irritating children,” she said. She was, by now, stating the obvious.

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