In certain corners of dramatic television, the kids are not all right. There, all manner of Pied Pipers lead the children into the proverbial sea. Indeed, to watch “True Detective,” “Broadchurch,” “Gracepoint,” “The Killing” and “Top of the Lake” in any concentrated span of time, regardless of their respective merits, is to become convinced that the humdrum rhythms of childhood are always on the verge of shattering.
“The Missing,” the latest original series from Starz, only adds to this litany, and you would be forgiven for deciding, after its rather dolorous beginning, that there’s no more room for child endangerment on your DVR. Keep following the tangled threads, however, and you may discover something else entirely: the possibility of redemption.
Written by Harry and Jack Williams and directed by Tom Shankland, “The Missing” concerns Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor), an English couple vacationing near the French village of Chalons du Bois in 2006 when their son, Oliver, suddenly vanishes. Eight years later, as Emily tries to build a new life with Mark (Jason Flemyng), an Interpol officer, Tony clings to his lonely conviction that the mystery of Ollie’s disappearance can be solved. “The Missing” toggles deftly between those fearful first days and the fallen present, particularly after it moves beyond the conventional juxtaposition of a bright, breezy family idyll — manicured parks, swimming pools, cafés in the main square — with tragedy’s gloomy skies. It is as much memory play as morality play, and that eight-year gulf gnaws at the edges of the narrative.
On the face of it, “The Missing” checks all the boxes of the “serious” serial, and I’ll admit to resistance on this front. Devastated parents; slimy, opportunistic journalist (Arsher Ali); obsessive detective with one foot in retirement (Tchéky Karyo); the requisite array of suspicious locals: at a certain point, such commonplace details suggest a profound lack of imagination. When every town on television practically hangs a sign reading “Secrets Buried Here!” at the city limits, the imprimatur of prestige fades fast. In this respect, “The Missing” is merely the same old song, without the precise geography of “Broadchurch,” the formal beauty of “Top of the Lake,” or the philosophical scaffolding of “True Detective,” a second-tier tale of a kid who’s not all right on a channel you probably don’t watch.
And yet, over the course of the five episodes made available to critics, I found myself drawn in by increments, considering the clues as though assigned to Ollie’s case. If you’re a fan of multilayered mysteries in this vein, the truth is that “The Missing” is a modest, workmanlike success; add to this the handful of grace notes that distinguish the series from other entries in the genre and “The Missing” possesses real, if as yet unrealized, potential.
As Tony, for instance, Nesbitt initially appears to be yet another angry, grieving father, prone to bouts of violence and heavy drinking. “I can’t survive in a nightmare the way that you do,” Emily tells him at one point, and indeed Tony seems trapped in his investigation of Ollie’s disappearance, constantly circling back to extraneous details and leads that went nowhere. But Nesbitt cultivates Tony’s flaws to fine effect — he’s intensely unlikeable, even selfish, in his pursuit of the truth, asking perfect strangers to risk life and limb on his behalf, and the series’ willingness to portray him as neither hero nor suspect is compelling indeed. So, too, is the evolution of the supporting characters, including a local policeman (Khalid Ziane), an English businessman (Ken Stott), and a former sex offender (Titus de Voogdt), all of whom come to be more than what they seem as “The Missing” plays its chronological long game. Though it does so haltingly, the series turns the genre’s stock figures into characters that transcend archetype, and in doing so reveals a richer complexion than the central mystery might suggest.
People evolve, and so do their memories, stories, dreams and nightmares. Cycling through a kaleidoscope of rhythms and moods — the thrilling, the contemplative, the unsettling, the pained — “The Missing” admirably refuses to allow its rote raw materials to determine its narrative contours, and thereby circumvents the brand of drama fatigue I’ve been suffering lately. It’s not yet a great series, but woven into its very fabric is an openness to change. For Tony, Emily, and the residents of Chalons du Bois, it’s still possible to reach a different ending.
“The Missing” premieres Saturday, Nov. 15 at 9pm on Starz. The first episode is now available to stream for free on Starz.com.