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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Missing blends character-piece introspection with thriller pacing

Illustration for article titled The Missing blends character-piece introspection with thriller pacing
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Few crimes are as haunting and terrifying as the kidnapping of a young child. Anyone who has lost track of a charge, however briefly, knows the heart-pounding dread that comes with a child being missing, and this universality is likely why so many crime dramas begin with some form of child endangerment. Top Of The Lake had Tui Mitcham, True Detective had Marie Fontenot, and now The Missing has Ollie Hughes. This BBC and Starz co-production stars James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor as Tony and Emily Hughes, a British couple who are on vacation in France when their son is taken from them. An eight-part miniseries, The Missing follows the characters both in the immediate aftermath of their son’s abduction and eight years later, when a new clue surfaces and leads to a breakthrough in the case.

With its dual timelines, many will appreciate this miniseries as a puzzle, each scene in the present coloring the flashbacks and each glimpse of the past prompting new questions about the present. But the series cares less about maneuvering pieces to set up strategic reveals and more about the characters it’s exploring. The series centers on Tony, whose inability to move on from his son’s disappearance has left him battered, but eight years later, has also given the case its first significant clue. Emily has tried to put Ollie’s kidnapping behind her, with limited success, but has been shaped by the loss just as completely as Tony has. Nesbitt and O’Connor are well matched, bringing nuance and power to their roles and making their characters’ offscreen journeys organic, but compelling. Though Tony and Emily hit many familiar distraught parent beats, Nesbitt and O’Connor’s strong performances elevate the characters and make the pair excellent guides through the intertwining narratives.

If there are distraught parents, there must be a dogged lead investigator. Here, that’s Tchéky Karyo’s Julien Baptiste. Karyo gives an understated, thoughtful performance that draws in the viewer and pairs well with Nesbitt’s more animated Tony. It’s great to see the determined detective, a popular type, also be one of the series’ most cautious characters. The show is perhaps most interested in Julien and his patient dedication as he chips away at the mountains of tedious legwork to be done if Tony’s clue is to amount to anything. More of a question mark is Jason Flemyng’s police officer Mark, whose intervening years are the least explored of the central figures, but Flemyng and the rest of the large ensemble cast work well to flesh out the world. With Mark and several others, the series explores those surrounding the tragedy whose lives have seemingly improved because of it and the guilt this knowledge brings them, and this embrace of the tragedy’s long and thorny reach is a nice touch.

Unlike moodier crime dramas (The Killing comes to mind), The Missing is very much a thriller, with each episode ending on a powerful revelation, either in the past or present. The story moves along at a surprising rate—the pacing is undoubtedly helped by the series’ short episode order—and there’s every sense that by the end, the series will give a definitive answer to what happened to Ollie. The show’s structure allows it to cut away at any point from the uncertainty and waiting that comes in the immediate aftermath of a missing persons case to the enticing but elusive hope of new breakthroughs in the present. Tony and Emily’s suffering is deeply felt, but the series doesn’t linger in it, opting instead to show these characters in action, exploring how they are shaped by their experience and the choices their pain pushes them to make.

The Missing’s direction is stylish and effective, particularly in the early episodes. The editing makes Ollie’s disappearance frighteningly relatable and several scenes benefit from a juxtaposition of Tony and Emily’s world and the one inhabited by everyone around them. The scoring on the whole works well, with one particularly creative moment pairing diegetic and non-diegetic music to memorable, disorienting effect, and thanks to hair, makeup, and performance cues—along with helpful on-screen text—the time jumps are easy to follow.

The major drawback to The Missing is its familiarity. Even with excellent execution and performances, this is a story crime drama fans have seen before featuring characters they’ve seen before. There is plenty to keep viewers coming back, and given its eight-episode run, it’s far from a lengthy commitment. But the novelty of the series’ structure may not be enough for those worn out on well-made, intense crime serials. The miniseries also lacks the distinctive personality of some of its predecessors (Top Of The Lake’s lyricism, True Detective’s philosophizing), instead focusing on its plot and the character moments that drive it. The series handles these elements very well, however, so while it may not transcend its genre, The Missing is a strong addition to the canon.