TV is getting to be annoying. Like never before, it interferes with our personal lives. We have no time for our chores after work, for example. Maybe we have to clean our kitchens, bathe our kids, even feed our kids, but there are just too many TV commitments. Just last night, for example, I set out to make dinner for my three little ones, so I baked the chicken tenders, boiled the noodles, and then Almost Human debuted, followed by The Walking Dead, and then came The Talking Dead. At 11 pm, I went to turn off the kitchen lights to go to bed and I saw my three little girls, patiently sitting at the table, waiting for dinner. (Before you call social services, I’m only kidding. I remembered to feed them before Talking Dead at 10.)
Now there are many ways to escape strict network schedules. Any show can be DVR’ed, or found on-demand, or on Netflix, or itunes, or Vudu, or Hulu or…you get it. You never have to miss your shows, but you still have to watch them.
At a time when there are so many channels, and so many ways to watch, TV shows need a strategy to stand out. Some get trashier (you know, like “reality”), some more graphic, more violent, more sexual, and some stand out simply by their very quality. There are great TV shows being made. And a side effect of this TV Renaissance is that audiences are both demanding more quality and just demanding more. Audiences are both spoiled and more refined. Spoiled, so that we demand more of a bloodbath in that grand guignol soap opera True Blood and more head-mutilation in The Walking Dead. Refined, so a show like Breaking Bad can explode into the public’s consciousness…as will what is likely the most compelling show on current American TV, The Returned.
The Sundance Channel is conducting an experiment by airing this show for American viewers. Based on the 2004 film “They Came Back,” The Returned has been erroneously called a French zombie show, but at least for the first three episodes, it appears no more a zombie show than The Walking Dead is a prison drama. It has no zombies, but it does feature characters who return from the dead, with emphasis on the word “character.” Take Camille, a girl caught in a school bus full of children which plunges off a bridge, killing everyone on board. Four years after her death, she climbs back on the bridge, walks home, and essentially says, “Hi, Mom” to her terrified mother. She looks like she used to look, acts like she used to act, and does not seem to be interested in eating flesh. The show features several characters who return from the dead, but they return as living people trying to continue their former lives, with no memory of having died.
The show is slow-moving, but it’s captivating and addictive because it takes a “what if” premise and fully realizes its potential, choosing the path of verisimilitude over “that’s so cool” plot development. It’s also very well acted, and with its hint of a dark sensibility and odd undercurrents, like the old show Twin Peaks (this is not the first time the comparison has been made), you have no idea where it’s going.
What’s somewhat revolutionary about Sundance’s decision to air the show is that it is in French, with subtitles. Remember, we live in a country which dubbed Mel Gibson’s Australian accent in Mad Max, where even British accents on television are either confined to PBS or Americanized, sometimes successfully (The Office) but often disastrously (Cracker, Coupling…this list is actually longer). Let’s face it, Americans are essentially xenophobes, Who could imagine watching a show in French while eating our burgers and “Freedom Fries.”
Sundance may be hoping that attitudes have changed over the past couple years. People may say Breaking Bad popularized the trend towards more substantial TV fare, stretching our collective tolerance of bad characters, but The Sopranos and The Wire earlier captivated us with tv that doubled as art. The Sopranos brought moral ambiguity into our lives, and The Wire was so complex and itself morally ambiguous, it was like watching a book. Shows like The Walking Dead, True Blood and Game of Thrones introduce us to richly imaginative work in fantasy, science fiction and horror.
So possibly we are ready for The Returned. It’s in French, but you should all go see it. Right now. Go.
(Warning, Sundance has not put it on-demand, and my tv menu doesn’t show reruns often during the week. You may have to go to itunes to watch the episodes you missed. In fact, you will have to, because you must see it.)