Unfortunately, after two episodes I’m getting the feeling that The Returned is simply ordinary. It’s serviceable enough, with an emotional plot and a host of characters to keep returning to, and yet the first two hours of the show have left me underwhelmed. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why; there’s already a foundation for The Returned to use thanks to Les Revenants, and the actors are good in their roles, the music nicely tinged with eerieness even if unfortunately not Mogwai. Still I’m not satisfied.
It’s partly the way that The Returned is handling its characters’ plots. It’s one thing to center an episode around one set of characters, and at first it seems like that’s exactly what the show is doing when each episode’s title involves one of the returned. And yet that’s simply not the case – “Simon” is as much about Camille and Victor as it is about Simon himself, and that becomes a problem when the show can’t maintain three or even four narratives at the same time. For these introductory episodes – showcasing the returned and the reasons their backstories are fraught with drama – it feels more important to get those subplots out all at once rather than doling them out like The Returned is doing now.
It lessens the emotional impact of the events, because the jumps between characters often rely on knowing the characters more than we do right now. Camille and Lena’s relationship hinges on knowing how it used to be, and the same with Lena and her father Jack, but the show hasn’t given us enough of their past for this to really be a factor. Instead, “Simon” often finds those people on the outskirts of the Simon/Rowan storyline sitting around and looking at each other with open mouths, still attempting to register the fact that Camille is back.
It’s most apparent with Victor and Julie, the two characters that have little to do with Simon, Rowan, Camille, or any of the Winship family. The others knew each other before Camille and Simon died, but The Returned hasn’t made that connection with Julie yet. Instead, the show forces us to follow Julie without knowing anything about her – she’s a doctor, yes, and she wants to find out where Victor came from, but other than “Simon” tells us little about her until the end of the episode, in a moment that should be emotionally affecting. She first admits she’s afraid of the dark; then, crying, she draws a bath for herself, stripping down to reveal knife wounds and teeth marks on her stomach, the same serial wounds that have now begun again in town.
It leaves a sour feeling; the show hasn’t done enough work to carry this reveal, and honestly right now I don’t really care about Victor or Julie’s story. I think that’s the reason why The Returned falls flat so much – not bad, not good, just kind of there, without making an impact either way.
The better part of “Simon,” though, is its flashbacks to Simon and Rowan, a couple ready to be married in the past. It never happens, though; Simon dies on their wedding day, during the wedding, and leaves Rowan with a baby and without a husband or father. She eventually moves on to marry the cop who delivered the bad news, and she’s ready to be wed to Tommy right when Simon comes back. The episode banks on the emotional impact of this event, and it effectively uses Rowan to make things ache even more. She sees Simon as a hallucination, and now that he’s really back, she treats him like he’s just a part of her imagination.
It works, and this is what the Victor/Julie story needs to take off. It would have been better to focus on that in “Simon” than the attempted murder subplot that it covers, with Tommy and his deputy Nikkie interviewing bartender Tony after his waitress is stabbed coming home from the bar. It has all of the atmosphere of a bad cop drama, and the deputy Nikkie is just plain awful in this role. Jumping down the bartender’s throat without any proof, she accuses him of stabbing the girl in the alley, basically pinning him down. He’s done this before, we learn, or at least been accused of it in the past; but The Returned goes one step further, with Tony showing that he clearly knows something about the past attacks and surprised to see that they’ve started again.
It’s too obvious, right now at least. Tony knew someone doing the attacks, he killed him, and now that person is back. The Returned plays these up as secrets, and shocking ones at that, but it’s tough to buy them. Like the emotional arcs the show has created for poorly developed characters, these moments are left sitting in space. It adds to that feeling that The Returned isn’t firing like it could be.
“Simon” continues this trend from the series’ pilot, that The Returned is a fine show and it does what it does perfectly mediocrely. It’s not breaking the mold, but it’s also doing a perfectly okay job as is. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make The Returned stick out among all of the other shows, comics, and books doing exactly the same story.