The Missing, an engaging and haunting eight-part limited series about the disappearance of a young boy — told in 2006, the time of his abduction, and 2014, when new evidence emerges — is, unto itself, a remarkable piece of television. But if you put it in context with two other recent series, its achievements stand in sharper relief.
The BBC series, made in conjunction with Starz, is almost a cousin series to Broadchurch, the similarly heartbreaking and stark BBC America series that was recently turned into Gracepoint, on Fox, for American television.
When you watch The Missing, it’s hard not to ponder the notion of originality while thinking of the other two shows. Namely: In a world of excellent storytellers, there’s no need to copy. Copies are watered down, they are lost in translation and they ultimately reek of a knock-off done for commerce, not art.
The Missing is the kind of series that should prove to Fox — and everybody else looking to make a cheap copy of something that already exists — that making something original is the way to go. Written by two brothers, Jack and Harry Williams, (and using the same director, Tom Shankland, on all eight episodes, a la True Detective), The Missing is proof that Broadchurch didn’t stifle the creative energies of the Williams brothers. Their story, very different from Broadchurch but touching on many of the same themes of grief and loss — and how they can ripple through and dramatically change entire towns, not just the people in them — is as magnetic and challenging as any of TV’s recent bests.
Compare that to the overwrought yet boring Gracepoint and you wonder why anyone gets involved in a remake at all.
But anyway, The Missing hits those same notes of extreme sadness and disbelief that floated through Broadchurch, so if you’re a parent thinking you’ve escaped the tissue-dampening bleakness of that series, think again. And yet, the Williams brothers have managed to focus less on the impact the loss of a child makes on the family directly while adding their own twist on how to sell a mystery. Because something is definitely off about the quaint French town of Chalons du Bois, where, in 2006, Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor) Hughes go on vacation from England. With them is their 5-year-old son, Oliver, an adorable sort whose happiness and curiosity liven up Tony and Emily’s lives. But when their car breaks down and they stay in town to get it fixed, Oliver goes missing as the locals celebrate an early French victory in the World Cup. It’s an amazingly simple and yet agonizing scene that Shankland nails perfectly. Most of the first episode deals with the staggering aftermath of Oliver’s disappearance — both The Missing and Broadchurch being standout examples of how long and deep to focus on the various emotional stages parents go through in those early days (getting grief just right is something even very good American dramas struggle with, mostly out of a tendency to move on too quickly).
Both Nesbitt and O’Connor are excellent as the parents, but they shine brighter within the construct of the series — able to play very different versions of their characters in 2006 and 2014. In the present, Emily is on the verge of getting remarried after trying to move on while Tony, relentless in his pursuit of Oliver and the truth, is a drunken, sad man who can still be a fearful missile pointed in the right direction when he discovers a clue. And after all he’s been through, with the alcohol destroying every relationship around him, it’s that stubborn refusal to stop believing and stop searching that turns up said important new clue.
What the Williams brothers do particularly well with the writing and the story is present how others — even, in this case, Oliver’s own mother — need and want to move on. Nobody has the heart or endurance to open old wounds, to rekindle the grieving process. It’s a fascinating bit of human nature that Oliver’s father can’t abide. For him, every second, even eight years later, is filled with desperation that others want no part of.
The Missing then shifts from being merely about a missing boy and focuses, superbly, on all the peripheral characters — the French detectives, the extended families, retired inspectors and even old suspects. A whole lot more can be written about the people of Chalons du Bois and how their open hearts and hospitality in 2006 turn into closed doors and bad memories in 2014 when Tony shows up in their little town once more, intent on stirring up the past.
Credit the writers and the director — and the various wonderful acting performances you’ll see sprinkled about — for making The Missing something more than just a whodunit. Like Broadchurch, the crime is almost secondary to the emotional fallout across all spectrums, and The Missing does a sharp and focused job of understanding how far hurt can go. Credit the flash-back-flash-forward technique for making this especially effective.
As the fall broadcast season goes down to a simmer, switch over to Starz and discover the next limited series you’ll need to watch.