2014 columns, Television

The Returned: the beautiful dead

by Stephanie Van Schilt , February 13, 2014Leave a comment

The Returned


Time and again The Returned (Les Revenants) has been named on ‘Top TV Shows of 2013’ lists around the world. You will have been told to watch it. There are good reasons why everyone is so insistent.

Don’t be scared off by the ‘zombie’ marketing tags: this French fare sprints in the opposite direction from The Walking Dead in mood, subject, artistry and performance. That said, you will see dead people.

Edgar Allan Poe’s famous assertion – ‘the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’ – has always been a popular narrative premise. Currently, this macabre motivation is thriving on TV: the original Danish and US remake of The Killing, HBO’s deliberately hyper-masculine new series True Detective, the delectably lush Hannibal, even teen dramas Pretty Little Liars and Veronica Mars take their core mysteries or story arcs from the death of a female figure.

Of the many that experiment with Poe’s principle about the pretty, the disappeared, the dead, no single show is more poetical than The Returned. ‘Camille’ – the first of eight episodes in season one – commences with the titular teen’s gruesome death when she and her peers plummet off a cliff in a school bus accident. Indeed televisual poetry that launches from this specific death of a beautiful young woman, The Returned is an aesthetically pleasing, philosophically challenging and emotionally potent show.

The Returned goes beyond the death of Camille – a fatal event that occurred four years ago – flashing forward to today where a host of other dead people (including Camille) are, yep, you guessed it, returning to the living they left behind. Character upon character strolls into the picture and, whether dead or alive, with each storyline introduced, a liveliness and confusion is palpable. From this first episode, the multifaceted dynamics between the cast and curious circumstances that structure this show are portrayed with a clarity that cuts through the visible mist shrouding the small valley town.

The opening credits and soundtrack (scored and performed by Mogwai) underscore the show’s enigmatic mood – of imagined ghosts in the attic, of strange tapping sounds on windows that recall urban myths and the beating of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. From The Shining/Damien-style creepy kid to a slasher-subplot and flickering lights around the returned beings, there are definite supernatural and horror tropes at play (as well as those affiliated with drama, romance, procedurals and thrillers). Yet the fear factor in The Returned doesn’t solely come from the walking, talking and (mostly) attractive corpses re-entering the community (there are some serious hotties here!).

The words eerie and haunting don’t even begin to describe it because the main fear at play in The Returned is how it confronts our current fascination with nostalgia head on. The Returned is not an earnest, romantic or revisionist portrayal of a collective moment in history like Mad Men; it’s not a defused, camp comedic throwback seen in, say, That 70s Show. The Returned dabbles in the aesthetics of nostalgia in the most psychological, existential and literal sense of the word, etymologically a compound from the Greek nóstos meaning ‘homecoming’ and Homeric álgos meaning ‘pain or ache’. (Literally translated, Les Revenants is ‘the ones who came back’.)

The return of these once-dead (still dead? Undead?) characters triggers a frisson between life and death, an uncanny temporal shift that is at once supernatural and existential. The mystery at the crux of The Returned forces all characters (as well as the very much alive audience) to ponder humanity’s uncertain and inevitable fate and directly confront the result of previous (or future) loss and longing. These characters are awash in the true repercussions of nostalgia as their present collides with the past and we’re all uncertain about their futures.

The Returned screens on SBS2 this week – it’s gripping television that will stay with you, so be sure to check it out. And if you have already, I advise reliving it while waiting for season two to return.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.

ACO logo


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »