The longest-running crime dramas tend to be “case of the week” mysteries where the perp is comfortably caught within the hour. It’s a formula for sure, but it’s one that’s easy to replicate and works quite well if you have the right talent and personalities involved. In reality, of course, there are many cases when the crook isn’t captured before the end credits…or ever. The accompanying anger and uncertainty is much trickier (and messier) to convey dramatically. The Missing — a limited series from England that aired on Starz — isn’t the first show to tackle that territory, but it’s certainly a compelling recent example.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
The series’ title refers to Oliver Hughes (Oliver Hunt), a 5-year-old English boy who goes missing in 2006 during a family holiday in the fictional northern France town of Chalons Du Bois with his parents, Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor). A legendary detective from Paris named Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) is called in to lead the case and help local police, which includes sketchy detective Khalid Ziane (Said Taghmaoui) and inexperienced officer Laurence Relaud (Emilie Dequenne). Tony and Emily also collaborate with Mark Walsh (Jason Flemying), an English detective who happens to be on vacation in Chalons Du Bois and serves as a liaison/translator for the concerned parents. They also get unexpected help from a local named Ian Garrett (Ken Stott), a wealthy property developer who takes a curious interest in Oliver’s case and offers to put up a generous sum for a reward.
In addition to showing us Oliver’s disappearance and its immediate aftermath in 2006, The Missing is also set in 2014 with Tony returning to Chalons Du Bois in pursuit of a new lead. He eventually convinces a reluctant (and now retired) Det. Baptiste to join the chase again. Since Oliver is still missing, the most intriguing questions raised by the 2014 scenes in the strong, table-setting Ep. 1/“Eden” are related to their 2006 counterparts and how much things have changed. You’ll be asking yourself questions like, “Why does Det. Baptiste walk with a severe limp now?” “Why is Det. Ziane in prison?”, and “Why the heck is Emily married to Mark now?!” (Ok, the last question isn’t hard too hard to figure out given the obsessive, alcoholic shame spiral Tony is working through when we meet him in 2014.)
Nesbitt is mostly a volcano of impatience and frustration, and the actor’s hooded eyes help in conveying the notion that Tony hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since Oliver’s disappearance. He also gives Tony a volatile edge in the 2006 segments that makes you wonder, but I wish he’d opted to give the character a bit more shading. Tony is a deeply wounded man who has driven away everyone he loves, but an occasionally lighter touch might’ve have also made him an easier TV protagonist to root for. (Tony is no TV antihero; we *should* be rooting for him.) O’Connor refreshingly has more dimensions to work with as Emily walks the tightrope of trying to move on with a new family while maintaining hope (and Oliver’s memory). The standout in the series, however, is Karyo who plays the sort of curious, brilliant detective we’re used to seeing, but adds in the right amount of compassion and fallibility.
English siblings Harry and Jack Williams have created a drama that toggles between both time periods throughout all eight episodes and finds a way to make them each engrossing. While The Missing doesn’t have the atmosphere and visual verve of something like True Detective (another recent crime drama that freely flowed between two time periods), it certainly has more character depth than something like Cold Case (which the 2014 investigation resembles).
Still, this show’s closest doppelgangers are Broadchurch (another British crime drama about the far-reaching effects of a small-town tragedy) and The Killing (I’ll get into it in a bit, but the similarities go beyond the titles). I loved Broadchurch for the way it zeroed in on every aspect of the title town. The Missing doesn’t go quite that deep into Chalons Du Bois, but that’s largely because the narrative is already pre-occupied with leaping back and forth between 2006 and 2014. The show does make some digressions that focus on characters who are seemingly on the fringes — like opportunistic journalist Malik Suri (Arsher Ali) and Vincent Bourg (Titus De Voogdt), a child molester trying to walk the straight and narrow — but they don’t fully click. I may be biased because I happen to work as a newspaper reporter, but I didn’t love the notion that the journalist was portrayed as being 5 times more deplorable than the child molester. There’s also a random hookup between Tony and a younger French woman in 2014 that goes absolutely nowhere.
The Missing does earn high marks, however, for having more in mind than the story’s central mystery. The reason something like The Killing didn’t work for me is because the show initially built its entire narrative around a singular conceit…and then punted the answer an extra year for no good reason. Not only does The Missing have more going for it dramatically, but its billing as a “limited series” promises (and delivers) a close-ended story.
Well…close(ish)-ended. The series has plenty of twists and turns and a few standout episodes — besides the opening hour, I particularly enjoyed Ep. 3/“The Meeting” (featuring the one obvious bit of technical flair, an extended-take high-speed chase) and Ep. 5/“Molly” (featuring a key revelation, a key death, and a nice twist at the end) — but the resolution can certainly be perceived as ambiguous. Personally, I thought it was a legitimate gut-punch that nicely dovetailed with the show’s opening scene of Tony at a restaurant eye-balling a happy family. It also drives home the point that some people can’t leave the past behind, while for everyone else “life goes on.”
The Missing is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 19 mbps. Much of the show — particularly the 2014 scenes — resembles other dreary, de-saturated BBC crime dramas. Color and brightness do perk up somewhat when the show returns to sunny Chalons Du Bois for the 2006 sections. As a result, the title cards that read “2006” and “Present Day” aren’t totally necessary, thanks in large part to the detail captured on this Blu-ray. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the high point for this presentation, which features some instances of aliasing, banding, and some substandard black levels that certainly could have been inkier. Fine detail is quite good, though not as extraordinary as you can get from HD presentations. Overall a pretty good presentation that could’ve been great.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is heavy on the dialogue, which is clear and confined to the front speakers. Solid separation means background noises like rain and crowd chatter — which are underplayed to begin with — are largely relegated to the rears. (Although the front speakers seem to unnecessarily pick up some of the background noise responsibilities.) Subs are barely heard from, but there aren’t many obvious places for them to chime in. I would’ve personally enjoyed a more immersive track to match the engrossing action on screen, but the English and French dialogue is served pretty well.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. Unfortunately, each of these featurettes are both too short and too redundant to be worth your time.
Time Changes All: (2:02) Cast and crew zero in on the show’s half in the past/half in the present conceit, and the actors talk about the subtly different choices they made for each.
Transformations: (1:59) Similar to “Time Changes All” with more of an emphasis on how the characters’ relationships change between 2006 and 2014.
Behind the Scenes: (2:32) Cast and crew offer an overview of the story…which you don’t need if you’ve already watched the show.
Although I wouldn’t personally rate The Missing as high as other British cop dramas — beyond Broadchurch, it doesn’t have the force of personality of something like Luther with Idris Elba — I’d still certainly recommend it to any mystery fan.
And unlike Fox and its ill-fated American Broadchurch remake (RIP Gracepoint), Starz was smart enough to simply air the impressive British original.