The Returned and The Fall: Death warmed up

A zombie thriller and a crime drama that ask you to suspend your disbelief.

Gillian Anderson and her character's collection of silk blouses keep you hooked on "The Fall". Photograph: BBC

The Returned; The Fall
Channel 4; BBC2

Channel 4’s first subtitled acquisition in two decades has been billed as a zombie series but this is not quite right. The Returned (Sundays, 9pm) is so much more, well, French than that: so elegantly made, so thoughtful, so (weirdly, under the circumstances) chic.

Many of its most important characters have, it’s true, come back from the dead. But the actors who play them are not required to wear zombie contact lenses; so far, there has been no foot-dragging, no biting, no growling, moaning or barking. Its writers, Fabrice Gobert and Emmanuel Carrère, are more interested in questions of grief, faith and guilt than in your bog-standard horror and the result is a series – creepy but tender, too – that reminds me strongly of the award-winning Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008). No wonder it broke audience records when it was first shown on the French cable network Canal+.

The Returned is set in a small Alpine town, a place whose quiet desolation is starkly at odds with its beautiful surroundings (we’re talking Perspex bus shelters and modern flats, not chalets and ski lifts). Three years earlier, a coach filled with children and teachers came off a twisting mountain pass and tumbled down a hillside above a dam. There were no survivors.

The parents and siblings of the dead have been trying to put their lives back together – a support group meets every week and a memorial is shortly to be erected – but it has not been easy. There are hints of the fallout all around. Couples have separated; siblings have started drinking too much. People’s eyes still look bruised with crying, even now.

Everything is about to change, however. The dead are returning, quietly and without fuss. In the first episode, a girl called Camille (Yara Pilartz) awoke in the gloaming, scrambled up the hillside and walked home. In the family kitchen, unaware she had been gone for three years, she blithely made herself a sandwich. “I’m so hungry,” she said, when her mother, Claire (Anne Consigny), appeared at the door, trembling. (Hunger seems to be a thing with French zombies; the next one we saw return home, a middle-aged woman, devoured cold spaghetti straight from the pan.) If the children are zombies, their poleaxed parents are automata. Claire was too shocked or too terrified to perform the rituals of reunion. At first, she did not even touch her daughter, perhaps because she feared watching her hand move through thin air.

Consigny’s performance was great. It was as if she was thawing before our eyes, sudden happiness melting the pack ice of three years. You could see it move through her body: a wave of bliss, a ripple of ecstasy – the opposite of a shiver (whatever that might be called).

I’m reluctant to say too much more, as I think the less you know about The Returned, the easier it is to suspend your disbelief and enjoy it on its own terms and perhaps you have it saved up for future watching. It promises to be very good indeed. Elsewhere in town, bad things – terrible things – are happening, though we don’t yet know in what ways, if any, these are linked to the undead. I am already hooked.

Meanwhile, on BBC2, The Fall has finally come to an end (10 June, 9pm). I’ll keep mum about this, too, just in case. But now it’s over, I do feel like having my say on its central controversy, which is that the tough woman cop at its heart – Stella Gibson, as played by Gillian Anderson – was a sop to encourage us to turn a blind eye to the frankly pornographic way in which it depicted violence against young women. I think this is right (though, if so, it also failed, given how uneasy its murder scenes made me and many others).

Still . . . Gillian Anderson. She’s something, isn’t she? Was her turn as Detective Superintendent Gibson the most brilliantly understated and chilly performance ever to make the small screen? Or was she, as she filmed it, mostly thinking about where she had parked her car and what she was going to have for her tea? Mesmerised though I was by both her and her collection of silk blouses, I’m still not sure I know the answer to that one.