One of the best television shows of the fall is also one of the most unexpected: A zombie drama. In French. That isn't about mowing down herds of decomposed drones.
The undead on "The Returned" (which debuted this week on the Sundance Channel) have no memory of their demise. They simply reappear, as if awoken from a coma, looking as healthy as ever.
In the first episode, a 15-year-old strolls into her family home four years after a fatal bus crash. She goes to the kitchen to fix a sandwich while her mother can only look on in shocked, unnerved, elated silence. Later the girl will come face to face with her twin sister, who has aged in the intervening years, and they will both crumble into a pile of bewildered screams and tears.
What is going on in this picturesque Alpine village? Who are these resurrected beings reaching out to their loved ones as if nothing were amiss? Brooding, complex and intensely emotional, "The Returned" is the antithesis of the amped-up kill-'em-all energy of "The Walking Dead." This is how the French do zombies. Eerie. Existential. And incredibly moving.
The acting is nuanced; the cinematography awash in the cool blues of the mountainous landscape. The story's mysteries do not unfurl with neat explanations; viewers are left to contend with the messy knots of this strange turn of events.
The eight-episode series was a hit when it first aired in France last December. It was then picked up in the U.K. and became a minor breakout. It began airing in Australia just a few weeks ago. Chicago-based Music Box Films (the art-house cinema's distribution arm) scooped up the U.S. rights and finalized the deal with Sundance last month.
A boutique distributor focused on bringing foreign films to the States, Music Box has shown savvy instincts in its short history (nabbing the Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its sequels). Only recently has the company begun venturing into television.
These are uncharted waters. Americans have to hunt for these types of shows — most of which are accessible only on DVD or via digital streaming. Despite the niche landscape of cable, there are no dedicated TV channels that offer programming from Europe. (Actually there is one; more on that in a moment.)
It's not easy if you're a viewer curious about offerings from Germany, France, Italy or Sweden.
And there's good reason to be curious. When I spoke with Music Box Films Managing Director Ed Arentz, he talked about much-improved production values overseas: "This golden age of television applies to Europe as well. They've definitely upped their game and there are a number of series that have really made an impact."
The Scandinavian versions of "The Killing" and "The Bridge" (both of which spawned their American counterparts) have been huge in Europe — including the U.K., where subtitled programming is not the taboo it apparently is in the States — but good luck finding a legal way to watch either in the U.S.
You can thank the American remakes for that. When TV producers secure English-language rights, the deal usually mandates an embargo on the original. U.S. studios want a blank slate for viewers on this side of the pond. They'd rather you didn't compare versions.
I'm not sure it's a philosophy that makes sense. Foreign films that get a Hollywood remake aren't walled off to U.S. audiences, so why should TV be any different?
"Borgen" is yet another big hit from Denmark that's become an underground sensation among Americans who can actually find it. A smartly made thematic descendant of "The West Wing," it currently airs on the LA public TV station KCET, but viewers elsewhere can keep up online; each week the two most recent episodes are available for streaming at kcet.org.
Aside from British series that air on PBS or BBC America, the one place to consistently find foreign TV shows is MHz, a second-tier public television network (available in Chicago only on Comcast). It is home to a number of police dramas, such as "Montalbano," a seriocomic procedural set in a Sicilian fishing village, and "Arne Dahl," a Swedish series (new episodes air Saturdays) about an elite group of detectives. (MHz also streams its programming live at mhznetworks.org/mhz-worldview/live/.)
There's an untapped market here of viewers who aren't turned off by subtitles. The subtitles require a level of focus, but that's true of any serialized drama on television right now, subtitled or not. And I'm always struck by the tourism-from-your-couch experience. I tend to notice the small details. How the French drink their breakfast coffee from bowls rather than mugs. The way front doors in Swedish homes open outward rather than inward.
Music Box continues to acquire more TV, Arentz told me, but it will be a challenge to find non-streaming venues for these shows. That's not a bad thing if Netflix, Hulu and others can generate the kind of large-scale promotion that gets the TV reviewing community on board. Viewers have to know these international shows actually exist.
That's the challenge, so Arentz is getting creative. "We have a series coming up that will play first in theaters," he said. "The international title is 'Generation War,' and it originally showed on one of the big German channels." Arentz described it as a German version of "Band of Brothers." That will come in early 2014.
Arentz has also licensed a Japanese series called "Penance," about four young women who witnessed a murder as children, and a German miniseries called "The Tower," a family drama set in East Germany just before the wall came down.
"The Returned" airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on the Sundance Channel. For a schedule of foreign-language dramas on MHz (live streaming and Comcast Channel 372 only) go to wycc.org/schedule.
Writing and filming
Cinema Minima asked filmmakers to craft short films based on essays by local writers: Beverly Scott's "I Do But Do He" (the buildup to a blind date); Brenton Harper-Murray's "Choke" (a man and woman grapple with emotional baggage); and Robert Castillo's "Robert and John Got Married" (a gay couple from Logan Square ties the knot). The essays can be read ahead of time at anysquared.com. The films they inspired screen 8 p.m. Sunday at Cole's Bar. Go to cinema-minima.com.
Grief and guilt
In the history of aviation, fewer than 20 plane crashes left just a single survivor. Chicago-based filmmaker Ky Dickens talked to many of them for the documentary "Sole Survivor," which screens Tuesday, courtesy of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Go to MidwestFilm.org.
The real meaning of that movie
British director Sophie Fiennes (sister of the actor Ralph Fiennes) teams up with cultural critic and intellectual maverick Slavoj Zizek to examine the meaning behind major movies of the 20th century, from "Taxi Driver" to "Full Metal Jacket." A winding, witty, exhaustive cinematic lecture, it comes to the Siskel Film Center, where it runs through Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/perverts-guide-ideology.