The new wave of death-obsessed TV drama

Feature Louisa Mellor 12 Jun 2014 - 06:56

Louisa looks at a crop of current TV dramas exploring our relationship with death, from The Returned to In The Flesh and more…

What if the Rapture - or something very like it - happened, and life carried on afterwards? Imagine if a significant but not world-destroying number of unconnected people simply vanished one day, leaving the rest of us behind. Clueless and abandoned, the subjects of an aloof universe, how would we live on underneath the weight of that mystery?

Or this: you hear a noise in the kitchen and discover the beloved daughter you lost in a fatal accident years ago making herself a sandwich complacently unaware that she ever left. Or your fiancé, whose death shattered you to pieces a decade earlier, turns up at your door as young and handsome as the day he died and begs you to run away with him.

What about learning that the teenage son whose suicide pulled your family inside out is coming back to live with you? He’s partially deceased now, paler than before and in need of a daily injection to stop him turning into a monster, but he’s still your boy and he’s coming home.

Aside from being the premises for excellent (or in the case of forthcoming adaptation, The Leftovers, potentially excellent) TV dramas, what the above share is a common fascination. Using the supernatural, each one explores a wholly natural event in our lives: our deaths and those of the people we love.

Yes, between ratings-grabbing soaps, murder mysteries and violent fantasies from Game Of Thrones to The Walking Dead, people have been dying on the small screen for years. Shows from Six Feet Under to Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me and more have used death as the jumping-off point for family and investigative drama. But this current crop isn’t interested in using death simply as a dramatic engine or gory shock tactic; they’re fascinated by the thing itself. The fantastical stories they tell don’t just portray characters attempting to cope with the abrupt blank space left behind by death, they’re attempts to cope with and understand it in their own right.

Take HBO’s The Leftovers, which comes adapted from the 2011 Tom Perrotta novel of the same name and premieres in the US this June. It presupposes that three years ago, two percent of the world’s population disappeared, all at the same time, all without warning. Taking the inhabitants of a small New York state town as its focus, The Leftovers concerns itself with the titular people left behind and their varying responses to the loss. Some lose faith, others gain it. Some pull away from their remaining family, others draw closer. Extravagant belief structures are erected in the post-event world, some groups decrying humankind’s sin and others preaching hedonism. However insistent the dogma though, nobody has the answer. Whatever they believe, nobody knows where the disappeared went, or why.

As well as making some insightful points about religious rhetoric, Perrotta’s premise performs a simple but powerful narrative trick by expressing the bewilderment of a single bereavement on a global scale. By expanding the personal shock of an abrupt death from one to millions, his novel explores the myriad ways grief disarms you. Whenever someone we know and love dies, we’re the leftovers, mystified, answerless and struggling to continue in a disinterested universe. If the HBO series captures even some of the novel’s clarity on grief, it'll be well worth the investment of our time.

Similarly worth the investment is stylish French series The Returned, a drama that could trade on its dreamily constructed atmosphere alone were its characters and plots not every bit as captivating.

Once again focusing on the inhabitants of a small town, The Returned imagines how we would react were our dead loved ones sent back to us unharmed and with no knowledge of where they’d been. Through its increasingly complex supernatural mystery it stages simple human truths. The difficulties, for instance, of parents raising one child after losing another; the necessity of leaving our past - handsome ex-fiancés and all - behind us; the cruel and difficult-to-swallow truth that sometimes we’re better off without the family members who’ve died… The Returned’s fantastical stories of Camille, Adèle and Serge respectively explore the real-world emotional tangles to which death gives rise.

As does In The Flesh, which arrived on BBC Three last year twenty times better than it had any right to be and continued to improve through its recently concluded second season. Underneath the first series’ clear function as an allegory on prejudice and intolerance was a personal and heart-felt anti-suicide message. By allowing its undead teen lead, Kieren, to come back home after his suicide and see the aftermath of his actions (“you didn’t even leave a note” he's berated by his younger sister), In The Flesh was a dramatic rehearsal of what might be if that permanent solution to a temporary problem wasn’t permanent after all.

Series two of In The Flesh dealt with more needless deaths, a boy racer’s car crash, an addict’s overdose… and waved the supernatural magic wand to give the died-too-young a second chance at life. Unlike superb recent BBC crime drama Happy Valley, the plot of which was driven by a need for revenge against the man who caused a teen suicide, In The Flesh tackles the injustice of premature deaths by reversing them and seeing what follows. Of course, in the grand tradition of fiction's The Monkey Paw, what follows is rarely the wish the bereaved asked to be granted.

The Returned and In The Flesh form the vanguard of a new wave of moribund TV drama. (It’s more a flood than a wave - in addition to their second series, there’s a US remake of The Returned debuting on A&E later this year, alongside a second season of Resurrected and a first of the NBC’s revived Babylon Fields and iZombie, all of which share the same revenants-come-back-as-people-not-monsters premise. Add to those Proof, the TNT series about a man and woman fixated on what happens after we die). They signify a break with The Walking Dead’s macho zombie drama, which, despite featuring the undead, has always been less about death than it has about how far people will go for self and family preservation.

What’s behind TV’s sudden interest in seeing a softer side to those who've come back from the dead? A certain amount of bandwagon-jumping wherein commissioners see sympathetic zombies as the new sparkly vampires and green-light projects they may not have otherwise, is one answer.

There are other possibilities, one of which is to do with the ongoing evolution of TV drama as an art form. Just as the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century saw novels move away from social realism and turn inwards towards complex psyches and existential doubt, so perhaps is television now shrugging off the big, social stories and zooming in on the individual psyche (and, naturally, its preoccupation with death).

After the achievements of The Wire, Our Friends In the North, The West Wing and their ilk, perhaps TV drama has reached the apogee of political, state-of-the-nation drama and is now turning inwards, towards the personal. We’ve seen gritty realism and masculinity in crisis done on TV in a dozen brilliant different ways. We’ve told the big stories, so now we’re telling the intimate ones, a move that, ironically, has created a nascent obsession with the biggest human story there is.

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