Grace Dent on TV: The Returned, Channel 4

It's the undead with subtitles. Only they don't explain why zombies like pasta so much

Being, roughly speaking, an idiot, I've ignored The Returned on Channel 4 for almost a month, blanking the effusive chunterings of my friends and fellow Twitterers, turning my snub nose aloft at what was clearly to my mind a load of zombie faff with subtitles. I'm not a zombie fan at the best of times. They're my least favourite undead entity; badly dressed, forever banging on windows and not even that scary, usually with a rotted kneecap or a backwards foot meaning I could outrun one in slingbacks, stopping behind a tree for a Regal Kingsize.

But as I say, I'm a fool. The Returned, now I've caught up with all four episodes in one delicious glut, is actually one of the greatest, creepiest most compelling shows brought to British TV screens in 2013. These returned souls aren't hobbling, gut-guzzling menaces. They're merely passed-away souls who've inexplicably arrived home. They're perfectly preserved, handsome, pretty and in nice neat outfits. It's this incredible normality, their everyday swagger that's so fantastic. They're a little bit confused, have vague recollections of their deaths and they're ravenously hungry but for little more than a cheese sandwich. “J'ai faim!” mumbles a recently returned girl, scoffing pasta straight from the pan. Her father – who buried her some years ago – is horrified.

Four episodes into The Returned and we still have little idea why the undead are back, merrily carb-loading and opening their unattended mail. We have clues. Something about the local dam levels? The power supplies? Unfinished emotional business, personal scores to settle? For me, the mystery of why these folk have returned is less interesting than how their family members react to their second coming. When someone we love dies and the grief journey begins, lasting years, or for that matter forever, we often daydream of having that person back. Here in The Returned we get to live out the complexities of that: life has moved on since the death, marriages may have split up and siblings grown used to being top dog. Families have moved house since the death, meaning the undead can't find their way home.

And if a dead relative appeared in your kitchen calmly eating a ham sandwich and mumbling, “gosh, I'm hungry, something very weird happened on my way home tonight”, what is your first course of action? Hit them with a frying pan? Destroy the head, burn the torso? Little bit Shaun of the Dead, little bit Game of Thrones, but you're in a panic. And hang on, you love them.

How about “kill yourself”, as you believe you've had a complete, unequivocal breakdown from which there's no return? Or simply “run to the local vicar demanding calming words on the hereafter”? Surely he knows what to do? He's been spouting on about resurrection for long enough. Would you spy it as a money-making opportunity? Come and meet the local zombie! Or would you vow to keep your own personal ghost hidden, even if that means losing all your own stability?

The Returned is so perfectly addictive as these options are prodded, poked at and played out. And what if the dead return and we remember they weren't always that perfect in the first place? In death we paint loved ones as saints, but Camille Seguret, back from a tragic bus-crash, wasn't a saint. She was a normal, stroppy teenage girl when she was killed three years ago, smitten with the boy who loved her sister Lena. Now Lena has blossomed into a gorgeous, albeit volatile and boozy, young woman and Camille is back with a score to settle. In fact the skin on Lena's back is now beginning to rupture with a deep festering scar which Camille claims to know nothing about. I've waited patiently for one of the dead to explode into a ball of neck-ripping, entrail-eating rage, but it's their very measured decency that makes The Returned all the creepier.

Halfway through the series, we have very little idea what the dead's long-term plans are, aside from hang about sulkily and eat a lot of spaghetti. Nor do I have any great hopes of finding out as there is such a heady Twin Peaks vibe here that logic and neatness seem secondary. The one thing I do know is that when this mess is sorted out, the men who run the local dam really should be hauled in front of HR for a chat about work procedure.

“Zut alors, the water level's dropped by another 10 metres,” mumbles Jean-Luc. “Ah, quel dommage! Ah, ce n'est pas important, ça” says Claude with a Gallic shrug. They're bloody useless, or whatever that is in French. I skipped through seven years of language lessons without enough nous to buy a good Camembert baguette. But then I refused to watch The Returned for a whole month and instead re-watched series one of Tenko instead. I'm clearly one oignon short of a potage.

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