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The Returned: Don’t judge a show by its first episode (especially if you’re a TV critic...)


On Sunday night, the French zombie drama The Returned (Les Revenants) stuck a claim to being the best-received French zombie TV drama of all time.

Not a wide field, but Episode One was enough to blow away many of the nation’s TV watchers and critics. The Independent’s own Tom Sutcliffe was a tad circumspect (“I’m not sure the funereal pace can be sustained for too long now that it’s done its initial job”), but the Guardian’s Sam Wollaston was keen – “Certainly one Guardian writer is already hooked.  I can hardly wait for answers, to so many questions.” And Ben Lawrence in The Telegraph was keen too (“It’s worth serious attention”).

But how does The Returned – which blew many viewers away judging by the instant feedback of Twitter – compare to the first-night reviews of TV’s greatest hits?

Some shows are crowned with greatness one episode in, whereas others need a bit of warming up to reach their potential.

The two classiest dramas of the last 15 years, The Sopranos and Mad Men were certainly in the former group.

Writing in the week it first aired in the States in 2007, The New Yorker’s revered TV critic, Nancy Franklin asked “Have any states yet legalised marriage between human beings and TV shows? If so, I’m going to throw a few things in a bag and run off with Mad Men.”

The Sopranos, meanwhile, began its glorious run in the UK in July 1999 to rapt reviews. The Independent’s Brian Viner was smitten with the bloody antics of the DiMeo crime family: “It’s darkly, subtly comic. Our very own Operation Good Guys for all its acclaim, looks clumsy by comparison. Both are spoofs, but one uses a sledgehammer to rearrange our preconceptions, the other a paint brush.”

On the other hand, since airing, The Singing Detective has been lauded by many as Dennis Potter’s finest work and, ipso facto, one of the great British dramas. But Byron Rogers, reviewing its first chapter in The Sunday Times wasn’t able to accentuate its positives too broadly. “There were some fine things,” he wrote, but concluded, “I had not a clue as to what was going on.”

Other TV greatest hits aren’t quite so well treated. Victor Lewis-Smith’s first night review of The Office, in 2001, gave Ricky Gervais’s debut a kicking which Gervais still hasn’t forgotten (he reposted it in full on his Tumblr in 2011). Said Lewis-Smith of a show which changed the face of British and American TV comedy: “This is the time of year when you’re liable to find people sticking their stinking hairy oxters in your face if you venture onto the Tube and it’s also the season when schedulers try to sneak their stinking disasters into the listings unnoticed, but even that doesn’t fully explain what’s happening to British TV comedy at the moment. How this dross ever got beyond the pilot stage is a mystery.”

Let’s hope The Returned continues its good form, lest it receive a similarly zombifying kicking.