TV review: The Returned, Channel 4

Terror in the Skies, Sunday Channel 4

Always a shock when the dead return to life. A few years ago, for example, those of us who value subtitled drama had pretty much got over our sense of bereavement. Even BBC2 wouldn't run a subtitled film, it seemed.

The genre was six feet under. But then BBC4 bought The Killing, and discovered that the concentration involved in reading a television series could do something special for a drama – and now everyone's looking for something that has that vogueish trim of translation along the bottom of the screen. Hence The Returned on Channel 4, a supernatural thriller from France about a small village in the Alps which really should be exploring some kind of exchange programme with Twin Peaks, Washington. They've got an awful lot in common.

The opening was downbeat – if you ignored the echoes of the beginning of The Shining. A coach full of schoolchildren was driving along a mountain road, its occupants grousing about the maths test they'd just been landed with. And then, without warning, it swerved through the parapet, teetered a moment on the brink and dropped into the valley. The group-counselling session you see soon after, parents gathered in a drab municipal hall, suggests that the death toll was high. But then you cut to one of the young victims, up and walking in the mountains. She isn't scary... she's scared, baffled to find herself alone and miles out of town – and this is The Returned's first twist. The dead don't know they've died, and return to their lives as if only a few hours have elapsed rather than four years. Barring a disruptive effect on electricity circuits, they don't appear to possess any supernatural powers, either.

Camille, no conventional zombie, returns to a narcoleptic town, its streetlights shining down on empty roads and bland new-build estates. Everyone seems alone here, waiting for someone missing to turn up, and when they do, their reactions differ. Camille's mother is stunned into frozen immobility, as if any sudden movement might break the spell. Others are less accepting. A young woman whose lover tracks her down shrieks for release, as if convinced that he's a symptom of her madness. A father ties up his revenant daughter and sets fire to the house, as if to purge it of something demonic.

And – although the first episode is mostly a triumph of mood and underplayed emotion – there are signs that the plot will twist itself into more gothic knots. The town doctor is stalked by a silent child who is revealed, in the final frames, to be implicated in the original crash. And the town's friendly hooker is violently murdered in an underpass, as if death is trying to balance the books. So far it's very stylish, the fingernail-on-chalkboard score by Mogwai adding to the eerie urban nightscapes. And the central idea of what happens to grief when its objects are suddenly restored is intriguing, a theme pregnant with uncomfortable truths. But I'm not sure that the funereal pace can be sustained for too long now that it's done its initial job. Ironically, The Returned now needs just a little more life.

I would not recommend Terror in the Skies to nervous fliers. Plane crashes, says its presenter, Professor Brendan Walker, provide “a window on what's really going on” in aviation. If that's true, it's a very odd window, one that obscures the thousands of flights that arrive safely and lets you see only those on which something goes awry. The programme itself sets about to systematically withdraw any sense of security you might have about flight. Brand new planes? Untested in real-world conditions. Old, well-established planes? Prone to sudden unpredictable failure. Next week: “Are the pilots the weak link in the chain?” Would that be the chain that, entirely misleadingly, you've implied is composed almost entirely of weak links, Professor Walker? The pictures are fun though.

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