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‘Time of Death’ Is Superb, Intimate; Cool New Zombies: TV

'The Returned'
“The Returned,” a zombie show airing on the Sundance Channel, is based on the feature film "Les Revenants." Source: Jean Claude Lother/Sundance Channel via Bloomberg

Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- A daughter postpones nursing school to take a final multistate road trip with her dying mother.

Another woman, 25, prepares to take custody of her teenage half-siblings, honoring the last wish of their 48-year-old single mom.

Despite the detailed planning, the ends come hard on “Time of Death,” Showtime’s graceful, unsparing documentary series chronicling the final months in the lives of eight people.

“No one prepares you to see someone die,” says a tearful Laura Kovarik, four months after the road trip. Her just-deceased mother’s body lies in a bedroom upstairs. “It’s scary, it’s ugly and you can’t fix it.”

Created by Miggi Hood and produced by Jane Lipsitz, Dan Cutforth, Alexandra Lipsitz, Casey Kriley and Cynthia Childs (filmmakers known collectively as Magical Elves, the production company behind reality programs “Project Runway” and “Top Chef”), “Time of Death” makes a mission of challenging television’s reluctance to portray death in a serious, honest manner.

Cameras are present through rounds of chemo, numbing grief, family arguments, hospice care and, in most cases, the moment of passing.

No Smoking

Each of the six episodes features two or three story lines, introducing us to, among others, an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient who meets his two adult sons for the first time weeks before his death, and Dr. Antronette Yancey, a nationally recognized health advocate and non-smoker, in the final stages of lung cancer.

With one exception, each story concludes with the inevitable after a single episode.

That exception is Maria Lencioni, the single mother with breast cancer, whose story develops over the course of the entire series.

While enduring more than 100 rounds of chemotherapy and an ever-increasing despondence, Maria struggles to prepare her 25-year-old daughter for the responsibility of raising two very ornery half-siblings.

With access that recalls the unforced intimacy of public television’s landmark series “An American Family” -- no one here is playing to the cameras -- “Time of Death” isn’t easy viewing. The grief can be overwhelming.

And loved ones don’t always behave as we’d expect or hope. Maria’s self-centered teens rival the bratty villains on any soap opera, while the younger sister of a dying high-school girl wastes precious, dwindling time glued to a television.

In other words, the people onscreen are remarkable precisely because they are not, and “Time of Death” honors every one of them.

“Time of Death” airs Friday on Showtime at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: *****

‘The Returned’

French zombies are much cooler than their brutish American counterparts, if the stylish, eerie miniseries “The Returned” is any indication.

Making its American debut on Sundance Channel, the addictive program’s dearly undeparted bear little resemblance to standard-issue flesh-eating walking dead.

Take Camille (Alma Arnal). Several years after a fatal school bus accident left her at the bottom of a cliff, she arrives home and greets her stunned mother with the casual indifference of any bored teen.

Spooky Boy

Set in a modern-day mountain village 35 years after a burst dam flooded the old town, “The Returned” is chock-full of “Twin Peaks”-worthy characters, including a brooding young man (French heartthrob Pierre Perrier) ready for the wedding he didn’t live to see and an intensely spooky little boy (Swann Nambotin) with a knack for appearing at bloody crime scenes.

Created by Fabrice Gobert and based on the feature film “Les Revenants,” “The Returned” looks gorgeous, with evocative, lyrical shots of ghostly hordes and drowned animals drifting in the town’s mysteriously shrinking lake.

A zombie apocalypse? Environmental revenge? The Rapture? “The Returned” poses more questions than it answers -- a second season is in the works -- but its restless spirits aren’t easily shaken off.

“The Returned” airs Thursday on Sundance Channel at 9 p.m New York time. Rating: ***


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include James Russell on architecture and Scene.

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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