Even before ABC premieres “Resurrection” on Sunday night, there is a skeptical audience waiting to thoroughly shred plots and find fault with the show set in a small town where the dead are inexplicably returning.
“Resurrection” is faced with these critical viewers because we’ve recently watched the same dead-come-home premise perfectly executed in the hauntingly lovely French show “The Returned.” In both ABC’s “Resurrection” and “The Returned,” which aired on the Sundance Channel last fall, the dead are not the carnage-crazed decaying zombies that populate Georgia in “The Walking Dead.” The new breed of dead randomly show up several years after they passed away. They haven’t aged a day. They’re even wearing the same clothes, which remain perfectly intact. It’s as if time stopped for them as the rest of the world mourned their deaths then and chugged forward.
“The Returned” deservedly gained a cult following, and those fans will scrutinize “Resurrection” because the shows are eerily similar, although their undead DNA comes from different sources. “The Returned” (“Les Revenants”) is based on the 2004 French film “They Came Back” (which was also called “Les Revenants” in France). “Resurrection” is based on Jason Mott’s 2013 book “The Returned.” Just to make it all slightly more confusing, A&E is developing the French version of “The Returned” for US television, because clearly we’ll need a third version of this story.
“Resurrection” starts in China, where an 8-year-old American boy named Jacob (Landon Gimenez) wakes up in a rice paddy of a remote village. He doesn’t say a lot, but eventually immigration agent J. Martin Bellamy (Omar Epps) coaxes enough information out of the boy to determine that he’s from a small town in Missouri. Oddly, no one is looking for the boy. But no one is looking because he was entombed after drowning 32 years earlier.
Jacob is brought home to parents who are in disbelief. His mother quickly embraces his return, his father is hesitant. Not knowing what to make of him, he’s shunned by much of the town, including his childhood best friend, now-pastor Tom Hale (Mark Hildreth).
The idea of addressing grief and loss is at the heart of the show. We are wired to understand the mourning process, but what should we feel when those we’ve lost come back exactly as we remember them years later? Everyone deals with it in their own fashion and pace, at least in “Resurrection.”
On the surface, “Resurrection” is quite different from “The Returned.” There is a central, level-headed character in “Resurrection” (Epps) who helps guide us through what’s happening as he investigates Jacob. “The Returned” had no such character to spoon-feed the story. “The Returned” was often compared to “Twin Peaks” with its languorous plot unfolding in a remote town full of peculiar characters. The hamlet in the French Alps where “The Returned” is filmed was practically a character itself as it shielded the town (and its undead) from the rest of the world.
“Resurrection” moves at a quicker pace, as our protagonist seems shockingly well-adjusted for a boy who has been gone for 32 years. Gimenez has the sweet face and eager-to-please disposition of a child on the intramural soccer team aiming to make his parents proud. As his mother, Frances Fisher (she was Kate Winslet’s mean mother in “Titanic”) gives the most nuanced performance. We can read her struggles on her expressive brow.
Although he’s the central character, it’s Epps who feels the most unnecessary in “Resurrection.” He’s an interloper serving as procedural bridge in a show that doesn’t need one. The story is about the families in Arcadia, and it gets muddied as Epps’s agent Bellamy pushes for medical tests and tries to speed up reconciliations.
Now for the confession: I am a huge fan of “The Returned.” I was skeptical of “Resurrection” from the start, but I watched with my claws retracted. It’s not “The Returned,” and that’s good. It doesn’t try to be moody with brooding undead. “Resurrection” is a different take on a strong idea that has been American-ized and well-adapted from Mott’s book. It’s sometimes gripping, the acting is good, and for many it will seem fresh. Well, as fresh as the undead can possibly be.