While we in the West routinely harvest organs from the newly dead to provide life and sight for others, our popular culture probes the shifting boundary between life and death. The ever-expanding TV population of zombies, the disappeared, and assorted cyborgs is joined on 9 March by the citizens of Arcadia, Missouri, who just can’t seem to stay in the graves where their loving relatives have interred them.
Although ABC bills Resurrection as an adaptation of Jason Mott’s 2013 novel, The Returned, the series, with its isolated small-town focus, can’t help recalling the French sensation, Les Revenants (2012), itself a remake of the 2004 movie, They Came Back. As Austin Powers might say, “It’s the Zeitgeist, baby.”
If the reborn Western, The Walking Dead, demonstrates that revisiting well-worn tropes doesn’t necessarily mean wearisome entertainment, very little in Resurrection’s first two episodes suggest it is interested in contributing to, rather than capitalizing on, TV’s current cult of the once dead. This may be partly because one of the premiere’s most chilling moments has been in heavy trail rotation all over the network: the arrival of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent (Omar Epps) determined to return to Lucille (Frances Fisher) and Harry Langston (Kurtwood Smith) their eight-year-old son, Jacob (Landon Gimenez), who had died 32 years earlier.
More significant, though, is the show’s uncertainty over whether it wants to be an exposé of small town life, a sci-fi fantasy or the kind of philosophical puzzle piece that spawns conspiracy theories upon conspiracy theories but ultimately delivers, as fans of this genre know only so well, minimal rewards in proportion to viewing time invested.
Very rarely, Resurrection offers up struggles between knowledge and belief—the existential dilemmas that organized religions have been trying to resolve for centuries. When Lucille decides her Jacob needs clean clothes, she goes to the closet where she has stored all his possessions. She lifts the lid from the first box, smoothes her hands over the neatly folded shirts and sweaters, and touches a small blue fur rabbit to her cheek, a smile of wonder on her face. But then she turns back to Jacob, who has followed her into her bedroom, and brightly announces that they will buy new clothes instead. She may relish every moment with this facsimile of her dead child, but she cannot yet bring herself to believe in the identity of the two.
The steadfast gaze of Gimenez as Jacob, too, occasionally moves beyond a child’s acceptance of his return to the family life he remembered, his bedroom, his place at the table and in his parents’ lives, to suggest another intelligence at work, one that knows it is feared and wants to prove its authenticity. When he escapes from hospital to search for his GI Joe doll in its old hiding place, and triumphantly presents it to his skeptical father, the boy’s look of thwarted hope as Harry turns away competes with a kind of resigned inevitability, a very adult determination to continue going through the motions until they reassemble reality once more.
It’s no accident that these moments arise from the performances of Gimenez and Fisher, who embody a luminous awareness of the uncanny transformation through which their characters are supposed to be living. Although other cast members, including Epps and Sam Hazeldine as a not-so-good dad, turn in perfectly competent performances, they seem to belong to a jollier, more confident time and place, Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove, perhaps, when all phenomena have a perfectly logical and simple explanation, if only one could find it.
The terrifying sense of standing on the brink of a fundamental change in the workings of the universe seems to have completely passed them by. The overlap of these two divergent worlds coexisting within one small town in Missouri might have worked in the series’ favor, had the show explored such tensions. But instead, this provocative disjunction slumps inert on the screen, like cold rice pudding served in a kitchen still awash with the aromas of fine wine and rich food.
On the evidence of the first two episodes, Resurrection seems just one more twist on an American obsession with investigating what lies beneath the surfaces of rural or suburban idylls. As a device to tell the same old stories about illicit love affairs, family estrangement, hidden crimes, and the secrets parents keep from children and visa versa, the arbitrary resurrection of the dead seems pretty extreme, and, frankly, a wasted opportunity.
As a meditation on the longing of the living for the revival of the dead, Resurrection could have pushed television into provocative territory, giving physical expression to the gaping dichotomy between body and mind that bedevils the privileged West. For now, Resurrection‘s sensationalism seems primed to scupper sensitivity. Care to discuss whether the dead can commit adultery, anyone?