The Missing, the new 8-part miniseries on Starz airing its second episode tonight, is beautiful in its own miserable way. The subject, a missing-child case, forms the premise of a story about the parents left behind. It's their faces, and their stunning performances, that turn a story of loss into something exquisite. As The Guardian put it when the series debuted in the U.K. earlier this month, the sight of main character Tony Hughes’ crestfallen face has become “one of the enduring images of the Autumn.”
The Missing also features haunting stick figures, clenched fists, home videos, creepy watercolors, and because a missing-child story would be incomplete without framed photos of kids there are some of those, too. Each shot seems carefully composed to maximize the visual horror included therein, in an artful manner. It’s at once a mark of the series’ premium pedigree—and its biggest problem.
The first episode, which aired last Saturday, was an exercise in a tragedy that’s been replayed too many times before, in real life and in fiction. Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily Hughes (Frances O’Connor) are on holiday with their five-year-old son Oliver (Oliver Hunt) when their rental car breaks down, stranding them in the quaint town of Chalons du Bois in 2006 during the World Cup. The child-in-peril-weary viewer might recall the horrifying child-snatching pool scene in Minority Report when Tony goes swimming with his son, but it’s in a bar that Tony finally loses track of the boy. He releases his hand for one moment and—yaaah!—in the midst of the football fervor, loses him.
The police descend, led by Inspector Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who arrives from Paris to make the most of the case’s crucial first 24 hours. “We will either find him immediately or not at all,” Baptiste says upon stepping off the train.
The rest of the series delves into the emotional state of the parents when the answer is “not at all.” In the show’s second timeline, set in the present day eight years later, Tony’s back in Chalons du Bois a broken man: His marriage has failed, he’s a drunk and broke to boot, and his son is still missing. Inspector Baptiste, who comes out of retirement to persuade Tony to let it go, suggests he’s still latched onto an immortal, Peter Pan-like image of his child. But it’s really Tony who hasn’t aged. Clinging to a new shred of evidence—a photograph of another boy wearing his son’s monogrammed scarf, dated to last year’s Bastille Day—he acts as if he can redeem his past failure with this renewed, seemingly futile investigation.
Meanwhile, everyone else—including his former wife Emily, now engaged to the former case's British investigator—has moved on. Though the scenes in 2014 for the most part have to do with the re-opened case, they unfold like ponderous character studies. A lead is followed; it presents complications, often having to do with the fact that the bulk of the evidence is eight years old; Tony breaks down. The show’s interested in how its characters muster the strength to go on after the fallout, which lands some in prison, makes one take experimental hormones, leads another to endure a savage beating. As for the moments in 2006, they’re like watching an insect slowly suffocate in a jar. We already know the fates of these characters and, almost without exception, their future prospects are bad.
There is a bright spot here: In the present, Tony manages to persuade Baptiste to help him on the investigation, which lends some much-needed momentum and levity. The elderly inspector gives the series its best sequences of both action (a car chase worthy of Jason Bourne) and emotion (a relationship to a source that makes the most of the series’ 8-year span). His transition from hardboiled authority to peaceable beekeeper in between investigations might be a bit unbelievable, but it's also what's keeping Tony—and the tone of the series—afloat.
But it’s the solo struggles faced by both Tony and Emily that get the most screentime. Immediately post-disappearance, Emily becomes a mournful ghost haunting the French hotel, her agony set against the backdrop of a tranquil vacation setting. Tony acts out like Hugh Jackman’s monstrous, bereaved father in Prisoners (without giving away too much, Tony’s the one who makes the blood spatter). The divergent paths they take post-big, happy family are depressing. They're also occasionally poetic.
But the poetry can feel visually and emotionally exploitative. Terrible images, such as the ones shown when a long-buried videotape is uncovered, play over and over. Tony’s solo detective work reveals more than one secret pervert in Chalons du Bois, and these scenes are played out to their fullest degree of intensity, even if none of it moves the plot forward. Each of the investigation’s discoveries means more violence, either emotional or physical. All of it’s beautifully shot, but it’s hard to appreciate when one’s primary instinct is to look away.
Comparisons have been drawn to the real-life case of Madeleine McCann, a 5-year-old British girl who disappeared from her room on holiday in Portugal in 2007, but the people behind The Missing are adamant that any resemblance is just coincidental. James Nesbitt, has stated that the show is not based on the McCann case; it’s a “thriller.”
Really though, based on the five episodes provided to me by Starz, the show fits better into the category of horror. It’s not just that director, veteran scary-movie helmer Tom Shankland (The Children, The Killing Gene, Ripper Street), brings a grotesque sensibility to the minimalist French sets, though he does that plenty. It’s the miniseries’ overall point—to channel the full emotional spectrum of what losing a child feels like, to imagine what it might be like for the people who are in the headlines and behind the microphone—that makes the whole show a nightmare and at points, unwatchable.
The duress of taking in The Missing will no doubt bring further awareness to the anguish that comes with losing a child; but that should already be self-evident. A child in peril storyline should never be taken lightly, but it doesn’t have to be so visually exquisite, either. Carnage is carnage, no matter how effectively shot.