Starz’s European connection has yielded what’s easily the pay network’s most compelling program to date, and no, it’s not “Outlander.” “The Missing” takes an every-parents’-nightmare scenario and transforms it into a twisty, dark, time-bending limited series, anchored by James Nesbitt’s intense, tortured performance as a father who witnesses his 5-year-old son’s disappearance, and is still reeling from the event eight years later. Spooning out details and forcing close audience attention to track how events have unfolded on a dual track, it’s the kind of premium drama any network would be proud to have — one in the mold of “True Detective” or “The Killing,” only from the grieving parents’ perspective.
Nesbitt’s Tony Hughes is on vacation in France with his wife (Frances O’Connor) and child when their car breaks down. Father and son are watching a soccer match in a crowded room, and when he loses contact with the tyke for an instant, whoosh, the kid’s gone.
But that was in 2006, and Tony, who has been searching ever since, now thinks he’s found a fresh clue — a picture of a boy who would be roughly his son’s age now, wearing an item similar to one that belonged to him.
Clearly, Tony has driven everyone crazy in the intervening years, and it has torn his life, and marriage, apart. Yet he’s able to inspire the detective who originally investigated the case, Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo), since retired, to rejoin the search, as the narrative flashes back and forth between past and present.
“We’ll find him immediately, or not at all,” the detective says to a colleague when the boy is first lost.
Written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams and directed in its entirety by Tom Shankland (“Ripper Street”), “The Missing” dangles various lures and red herrings. It also features a terrific cast who will be familiar to Anglophiles, including Nesbitt (star of the memorable “Jekyll” — and exhibiting some of the same ferocity), Ken Stott as a businessman eager to help by offering reward money, and Jason Flemyng as a British cop who assists on the case.
Beyond piecing together what transpired, “The Missing” moves the search forward in both time frames, somehow managing to foster tension even in the past. At the same time, the narrative spices its mystery aspect with powerful character drama; plenty of guilt, blame and recriminations to go around; and the requisite morally questionable reporter (Arsher Ali) eager to advance the story, giving little thought to the consequences.
There’s obviously no shortage of comparisons with the subject matter, from “Broadchurch” and its U.S. remake “Gracepoint” (both begin with the death of a young boy) to a movie like “Ransom.” Still, Nesbitt’s tormented protagonist is no superhero, but rather a man desperate for answers — however unpalatable they’re likely to be – clinging to hope seemingly more out of personal need than logic or reason.
Starz’s original programming has undergone various contortions, from its “Spartacus” and popcorn escapism days to the newfound female niche that “Outlander” has tapped.
If “The Missing” demonstrates anything, however, it’s that quality remains pay TV’s most indispensable ingredient, the one that trumps marketing or strategic brainstorming. Because in the premium space, anyway, when a show is this compelling — leaving even a jaded critic hungry for a sixth episode after screening five — it shouldn’t be missed.