On the one hand, comparing ABC’s new limited series Resurrection to Sundance’s French import The Returned is patently unfair. Resurrection is based on an American novel (also named The Returned), while The Returned is based on the French film They Came Back. And the idea of people who return from the dead, pretty much as they were right before they died, is such an irresistible one that many different works of art have flirted with it over the years—most recently in the TV sphere was the aborted (but widely leaked, viewed, and now revived) pilot Babylon Fields. Resurrection doesn’t do anything wildly original with this idea—or anything all that different from The Returned, really—but everything it does feels like a logical extension of the premise. If a dead person returned, you’d be suspicious. You’d search for several obvious forms of proof. You’d wonder what God had to do with it. Resurrection has many similarities with The Returned, but they are almost wholly coincidental, and the series is a simple victim of bad timing.
Watching Resurrection, however, is like auditing a master class in how broadcast network television dilutes even the most intriguing of premises. Yet it also suggests the advantages broadcast can have over cable and foreign series. For one point toward the latter, Resurrection has a large budget (at least in its pilot) and spends it wisely. An opening sequence of a resurrected boy waking up in a rice paddy in China features a reasonable facsimile of another country, and the pilot is stacked with recognizable faces in even the smallest of roles. (For instance, Kurtwood Smith and Frances Fisher are here as the resurrected boy’s parents, who’ve kept aging while their son, who died in 1982, is stuck at the age of 8.) No expense has been spared, and Resurrection is often handsome and lush, making it fun to watch just for how beautiful it can be.
Then there’s the allure of the premise, which may be why so many networks are doing variations on it (or, in the case of HBO’s upcoming, fantastic The Leftovers, its exact opposite). The pilot—the stronger of the two episodes ABC provided to critics—coasts for a long while off the sheer intrigue inherent in the notion of the dead returning to life, seemingly without any side effects. The return of young Jacob (Landon Gimenez) sets off ripples throughout his hometown of Arcadia, Missouri: His aunt, who died trying to save him from drowning, does not return, and the baby she left behind is now a grown woman named Maggie (Devin Kelley). Slowly, the news of Jacob’s return filters out to everybody in the town: his onetime best friend, now a pastor; other parents, who are horrified of what the boy might portend; and those who wish their loved ones might return as well.
So far, so good. There’s every opportunity for this to be a lyrical, mysterious American riff on a very basic premise, perhaps not as good as The Returned, but close enough. After all, ABC is the network that brought viewers Twin Peaks and Lost, so there’s a bit of the mystery show buried within its DNA. And yet Resurrection makes one major, potentially fatal error: Not trusting the audience to simply understand what’s going on, the pilot gives viewers a viewpoint character named J. Martin Bellamy and played by Omar Epps. Bellamy is an immigration official with some dark secrets, and he’s solely here to make sure nobody gets confused. He frequently mentions how remarkable this all is, or makes sure viewers are caught up in the story, or embarks on some sort of investigation to make sure that every episode has some sort of story center. It’s like somebody combined The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully into one individual and had him keep hanging around Arcadia for reasons that stretch credulity further and further with every minute.
The problem here is that none of the story of Resurrection is about Bellamy, but all of the story runs through him. The audience rarely gets information if Bellamy doesn’t—and sometimes, even things he knows are withheld from viewers, seemingly just to piss people off. There’s a much better show about broken families healing themselves buried inside of Resurrection, but it’s constantly getting superseded by whatever Bellamy is up to.
Even if all of that were fine—and Epps is a good enough actor to slide aside when the story needn’t be about him, even if he’s in the scene—the show is also glacially paced. The Returned certainly wasn’t fast-moving television, but it laid all of its cards on the table with impressive rapidity. Because Resurrection is scared viewers might not buy its premise, it keeps repeating it as often as possible. Then it introduces other elements and keeps hammering away at them. There are good reasons to watch Resurrection—the cinematography is often beautiful, and some of the acting (particularly from Smith and Fisher) is good—and it’s unfair to compare the series to a French show that just happens to be very similar. But it’s hard to look at Resurrection and not see all of the nerve that broadcast networks have lost.
Developed by: Aaron Zelman, from the novel The Returned by Jason Mott
Starring: Omar Epps, Devin Kelley, Landon Gimenez, Kurtwood Smith, Frances Fisher, Samaire Armstrong
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC
Format: Hourlong supernatural drama
Two episodes watched for review.