The Returned and The Fall: Death warmed up

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

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.

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

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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As the language of break-ups changes, are we regarding our ex-partners differently?

From “conscious uncoupling” to “LAT” couples, we are learning to retain friendly – even familial – post-romantic bonds with former lovers.

Is the conversation around break-ups changing?

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling” in March 2014, I was among the bemused detractors. Was it just a hippy-dippy euphemism, a nicer way of dressing up a plain old separation? Wasn’t a break-up bound to be easier if you had money and several houses?

Yet, almost two years on, it’s hard to deny that it seems to have worked well for them. “We’re still very much a family, even though we don’t have a romantic relationship. He’s like my brother,” she told Glamour magazine last week.

They’ve holidayed together and been photographed smiling and laughing like dear old friends. Perhaps surprisingly, it hasn’t prevented either from moving on to new romantic partners.

Even some of my (non-Hollywood) peer group are starting to come round to the idea. “I may be the only person in the world who likes the term,” posted one friend in a Facebook thread when I announced that I’d done such a volte-face that I was going to call my new solo show The Conscious Uncoupling.

It quickly turned out that she wasn’t the only person at all, as other friends added that they rather liked it too. Mind you, comedian Kate Smurthwaite commented that she’d only be likely to utter the words if she’d “accidentally swallowed poison and needed to regurgitate it”.

Now that we have an alternative phrase, albeit one that carries a divisive whiff of pretension, it does seem to be empowering us to behave differently, thinking more carefully about bringing greater compassion and communication to this life-changing painful process.

A male comedian friend described to me how he and his wife had, “agreed and admitted that this might all be over but we would still want to be friends – because at heart, we are.

He added: “No one teaches us that this can happen. If you split up, you must scream and shout and never talk to the other person again. Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Yet perhaps this behaviour did already exist. In previous decades, lesbians typically went through lengthy, turbulent transitions to form lasting family-like connections with ex-partners. The community was so small and secret that you “simply had to get on”, according to Dr Jane Traies, who conducted a comprehensive survey of older gay women in the UK.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the gay community have been pioneers of trends that have caught on enough to generate their own new language. They were “living apart together” long before anyone talked about so-called “LAT” couples.

So for those of us embracing the concept and ideology of conscious uncoupling yet not wanting to associate too strongly with Paltrow, how about an alternative term?

I’ve tended to talk about “post-romantic” relationships, while the writer Anna Freeman says she has used the word “metamorphosis” to describe “a changing closeness”.

I’ve also mooted the idea of a “decompression year”, a consensually agreed 12-month untangling, as opposed to abrupt endings that usually come as a shock to one party and render ongoing friendship impossible.

New York psychotherapist Esther Perel has recently called for greater “relationship accountability” in the wake of alarming new trends, “ghosting” and “icing”, which respectively see partners disappearing without explanation or finding excuses to suspend a relationship and put it on hold.

If we extend a sense of accountability to online dating and short-term flings, maybe we should offer a suitable substitute match to everyone we reject.

It’s not a million miles from a popular comedy industry ethos whereby you offer a replacement of an equivalent quality and experience level whenever you drop out of a gig.

In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending.

Whatever our feelings about conscious uncoupling, the idea of embracing the good things about your ex seems a pretty sound one. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who claims that she coined the phrase, has added something important to the conversation around breaking up – while celebrity endorsement of it has simply made more of us sit up and pay attention.

Rosie Wilby is a stand-up comedian and writer.