French Television Comes of Age with Beguiling “The Returned”.

The Returned.

The Returned.

One of the things that the French critic Roland Barthes was referring to in his Mythologies (1957) was the assumption that going to theatre was better for you than going to the cinema. And that best of all was reading a book. The myth being, that some things are necessarily better for you than others.

It was in France that Le Cahiers du Cinéma was launched as a reaction to that. And from there, the French New Wave of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Demy and Chabrol emerged.

Hotel Costes.

Hotel Costes.

Equally, they refused to snigger at pop music.  From Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy to Daft Punk and Stéphane Pompougnac – and if you’ve yet to discover the laidback seductively louche lounge world of Hôtel Costes, then lucky you. It awaits. You can begin here with this video from Hôtel Costes 15.

But for whatever reason, the French have always refused to look at television other than from a lofty, disdainful height. Ironically, they’ve always viewed it in much the same way that the rest of the world used to regard cinema. So The Returned is a welcome corrective to an uncharacteristic prejudice.

The series revolves around a school bus that has crashed over a cliff and the stories that emerge as the dead children re-surface as if nothing had happened. The reason that it all works so well is that everything is played absolutely straight.

It’s a million miles away from any of the horror genre gore and blood fests that have slipped into vogue of late. What it’s closest to is probably Breaking Bad’s first two and best series’. But without any of the thriller elements that came alas to dominate the latter’s later episodes.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Like Breaking Bad, it asks what would you do if your dead daughter suddenly turned up four years after her death? Really. How would you react?

The other obvious touchstone, as is invariably referenced, is Twin Peaks. Which isn’t terribly fair, as unsurprisingly it is in no way as visually or as sonically daring. But then again, what is?

That caveat aside, there is a similarly eerie air to events here. And it really is an impressively cinematic piece of work.

The Returned.

The Returned.

That it’s not quite sufficiently Lynchian is hardly the most damning thing you could hurl at a director. It’s comfortably the best thing you’ll see on television this year.

The Returned began on Channel 4 last weekend. But don’t worry if you missed the first episode. It won’t make you any the less wiser about what’s going on. And you will regret it if you don’t start tuning in.

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