Monday, March 10, 2014

Pilot Review: Resurrection

Resurrection (Sundays at 9:00 on ABC)

I am one of the few who went into ABC's Resurrection knowing what to expect. I knew that this wasn't an American remake of the critically acclaimed French series Les Revenants (The Returned), but rather an adaptation of an original American novel called... The Returned. Yes, it's confusing. But I've never seen a single episode of the French series (which aired late last year in the US on the Sundance Channel), so I don't know how similar ABC's take on the returned-from-the-dead series is to it. But I have read Jason Mott's novel, and I am happy to say that Resurrection is both close to its source material and more successful than it.

The lush opening takes us to the bright, loud Chinese countryside where an eight-year-old boy, Jacob (Landon Gimenez), wakes up in a rice patty. He doesn't know where he is or how he got there, and he won't speak to anyone. Immigration agent J. Martin Bellamy (Omar Epps, House) is assigned the task of taking him to adoption services, since he does not match the description of any reported missing children. But Jacob warms to Bellamy, or "Marty," as he likes to be called, and writes out "Arcadia" on his cell phone; Bellamy agrees to take him home. They are greeted in Missouri by an elderly couple, Lucille and Henry Langston (Frances Fisher and Kurtwood Smith), who inform Bellamy that their child died thirty-two years ago... but somehow, this is their Jacob. His DNA matches theirs, and he knows things no one could have coached him to say. Bellamy decides to stay in Arcadia and get to the bottom of things and diffuse the confusion and turmoil about to erupt in the small town.

It's really a fascinating concept to explore: what if the dead returned to life, seemingly just as they were before death? These aren't zombies or vampires or anything paranormal. They're the very definition of supernatural: that what is beyond nature. There's a great quote from Mott's novel that perfectly describes the situation: "Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago." Jacob isn't the walking dead, but the exact opposite. He's the hope and light and energy and zeal that went missing when he passed away. He's everything that was missing from the wholeness of his family and acquaintances for over three decades. It's a very emotional approach to the old back-from-the-dead trope, and Resurrection handles it very well.

There's actually a lot going on here. I have to admit that I wasn't the biggest fan of the source material when I read it last year, but the strongest part was Mott's descriptive language (he's a poet, and The Returned was his first novel). How do you film a passage like the one quoted above? And where Mott fell short was in the execution of the story; the plot just kind of starts and ends, without any real resolution or exposition. The questions on everyone's minds go unanswered (What are The Returned? Where did they come from? What do they want? How is this possible?), because the point of the novel was to just be a meditation on "what if" and the many personal and philosophical questions one might ask in the wake of such an event. So while the novel was a meditation on faith and grieving, Resurrection is also attempting to tell a true story. Aaron Zelman's script and Charles McDougall's direction strike a really nice balance between the more esoteric, lyrical moments and moments of narrative drive. McDougall's direction is a particular highlight, probably the best of any broadcast pilot this season, in its careful framing of small moments: a close-up of Lucille's aged hand next to Jacob's youthful one as they play piano together, Henry's eyes when he realizes his son is alive again, the empty church occupied only by the pastor (and Jacob's childhood best friend). These moments really drive home both the intimacy and the wide-reaching aspects of a story like the one Resurrection is telling. The return of the dead affects close relations on such a personal level, but what does it mean for the big picture?

That is one of Resurrection's most interesting elements: the Big Question. The way the series handles faith and religion could be seen as both blasphemous and realistic. Jacob drowns and, the way he tells it, wakes up right away... but actually thirty-two years later. There is no hint of an afterlife for him. But religion and faith are already playing a large role in the lives of those around Jacob; where else do you turn in a time like this? Pastor Tom (Mark Hildreth, V) is one of the most intriguing characters introduced in the pilot. As he says, "I've been preaching the miracles of God for ten years. Now here's one staring me in the face, and I can't accept it." It lays the foundation for both a spiritual exploration of what it means to believe, to have faith, and also for a potential conflict (we all know how out-of-hand religious fanaticism can get).

I'm also really pleased that the show is trying to get real answers. Already in next week's second episode, there is talk of exhuming Jacob's grave. This is something that was not raised in the book, because, as the scene between Bellamy and Henry in the pilot demonstrated, the theme of the book was simply believing. But audiences aren't necessarily going to stick around for a show that's just about accepting something at face value; we want answers, and it seems like Resurrection is going to attempt to give them to us. I look forward to what Zelman (Damages, The Killing) and his team come up.

As an added bonus, Resurrection boasts a terrific cast that elevates the material even further. Omar Epps is the most understated, as he's the only character in the pilot without any personal stakes in Jacob's return. He's the outsider, our way in to Arcadia, and the investigator, trying to make sense of everything (just as the audience is) without the emotional attachment the other characters feel. Which brings me to Frances Fisher and Kurtwood Smith, who are both utterly wonderful here. The look on Smith's face when he realizes who Jacob is, and his disbelieving reaction to his son's touch are chilling. Fisher's widening eyes, her cautious optimism, the way she falls right back into being a mother and caretaker are all so touching. She has a real connection with Landon Gimenez as her son; the way she's always looking at him, staring, making up for all the years she couldn't see his face, a hint of tears always forming, even through a smile... it's a really beautiful performance. There are some strong supporting performances from The Chicago Code's Devin Kelley as Maggie, Jacob's now-adult cousin who wants answers about her own mother's death, and from Mark Hildreth. He's not totally believable as a forty-year-old, but he has a quiet introspection about him that's good for a pastor, and his internal struggle between what he believes and what he sees is just starting to play out behind his features.

Resurrection is just a really strong hour of television. It's raising a lot of very deep, very emotional questions, and it's doing it in a lyrical and moving way. My favorite scene in the pilot actually harkens back to this. Jacob runs away from the hospital because he suddenly remembers something (the hiding place of his old favorite toy), and Henry runs after him. As they run through the Langstons' backyard, the present melts into the past; Henry recalls chasing his son in a game, with the image of thirty-something Henry traded off with the image of sixty-something Henry, both following the same, ageless boy, but an entire lifetime apart. It's a beautiful moment that summarizes one of Resurrection's many themes in a very elegant way: how do we reconcile who we are with who we were? How do we embrace a past we've moved on from? I'm excited to see how these questions are handled.

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