Tonight at 9 pm, ABC premieres Resurrection, its take on the novel The Returned by Jason Mott. And having seen the first two episodes, we can say that while it's not perfect, the show is definitely worth your time. Here's our spoiler-free review.
First things first: we're not going to compare this to the French series Les Revenants (The Returned, if you want to find the first season on Netflix). Both have a similar premise, and the ABC show has a complicated relationship with both it and the book it's supposedly based on.
Resurrection takes place mostly in the town of Arcadia, Missouri, which sees some of its dead come back, un-aged from the time of their death. The first to return is Jacob (Landon Giminez), an eight-year-old boy found in China. When INS agent J. Martin Bellamy (Omar Epps) brings him to Arcadia, he discovers that Jacob drowned 32 years ago.
One of the show's strengths, at least so far, is that it focuses both on the big picture (What does it mean for anyone to return from the dead?) and the specific (Why are these particular people returning from the dead?).
The ad campaign for the show has focused on the first idea a lot, literally asking "What if someone you lot returned?" And the show itself gives you the impression that the writers have turned over every possible reaction in their heads. Jacob's parents, played by Frances Fisher and Kurtwood Smith, are divided about whether to accept that their son is back. And even within what should be stereotypes, with the mother being the one to instantly decide that Jacob is actually their returned son and the father resisting, Fisher and Smith deliver more nuanced performances than just those reactions.
The show also explores the reaction of the rest of the town, who can see Fisher's character as delusional, Jacob as a miracle, or Jacob as a test of faith to be rejected. In particular, Pastor Tom Hale (Mark Hildreth) manages to both represent the feelings of the town and go on a personal journey of his own, related to his connection to Jacob.
And there's Dr. Maggie Langston, who was Jacob's baby cousin when her mother and Jacob died. When he returns, Jacob reveals that what Maggie had been raised to believe about her mother's death may not be the truth. This idea – the little myths that families create and pass down – is very interesting. Maggie's faith is in her mother as a hero, which is shaken by what she is told by Jacob. She never knew her mother, so the only things she knew about her were from stories she had been told. Jacob's reappearance shakes that faith, making Maggie's story a complement to the religious faith that Pastor Hale's character explores.
This leads to the more specific questions raised by this show. Because the promos focused so heavily on the larger-questions, it was to learn that there was more to the plot than just the "people come back from the dead" gimmick. Jacob's resurrection – and the contradictions in his account of his death from the official 32 year old version – lead both Maggie and her sheriff father to investigate. And it seems like the next person to return is related to that same incident.
The first two-episodes are definitely paced at a slow-burn level, which is actually a nice change of pace from a lot of network television's break-neck, every commercial break is a cliffhanger, every episode has a plot-twist pace. It lets the atmosphere grow and the characters breathe.
There are definite problems. Outside the Langstons and Pastor Hale, the rest of the characters aren't fleshed out, and that's a problem the second a non-Langston resurrected turns up. And while Omar Epps actually has some OK chemistry with the kid, his battles with his INS bosses take away significantly from both the plot and the atmosphere.
Finally, the biggest fear with this show is that it seems so fragile. The pace works in the first two episodes, but they've also set up a mystery and people seeking to solve it. As has been shown time and again, there's only so long you can watch people spin their wheels before you demand answers. And every so often the show wobbles on a cliche, and since it's precariously balancing the exploration of resurrection as an idea and this town's specific mystery, it could crash and burn very easily. The second it loses any forward momentum by giving up on the plot in favor of philosophy or it gives up on the larger themes for an investigation procedural, it's doomed. On the whole, however, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about Resurrection.