The Missing is a character study disguised as a police procedural that focuses on the effects a missing child can have on a family and a community. It is unflinching and unnerving and told in a novel way.

he Missing is a miniseries, so in the story will come to a complete end in eight episodes and creators Harry Williams and Jack Williams do not resort to padding, as similar series have often done (The Killing, Gracepoint), nor do they make use of nightmarish hallucinations like True Detective. The story is simple and the feelings are complex. This isn’t a fun show, but it’s a great one.

We’ve heard this story a thousand times before: a couple with a young child go on vacation, the kid goes missing, there’s an investigation and secrets are revealed. The Missing changes things up a bit. Each episode is broken up into two time periods: 2006 (the time of the abduction and initial investigation) and 2012 (when the case reopens). This gives us, narratively, a fuller picture. We get the immediate fallout from Oliver’s (Oliver Hunt) abduction – parents Tony (James Nesbitt) and Emily (Frances O’Connor) struggling desperately to understand the situation and continue to hope – and, years later, how their lives have changed. Throughout, we’re giving pieces of information with only a little context to broaden the mystery. One of the lead investigators in the 2006 case, Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) has earned a limp; another is now in prison. We learn that the expected worst has happened – Tony and Emily divorced (so few couples survive the loss of a child) and Oliver’s body has never been found.

It’s the uncertainty and the tiny hope that comes with it that makes this story such a sad one. There are, of course, real life cases where abducted children are returned alive years later – damaged by the world and possibly never to recover. Their lives were ripped away and when they came back, the life they remembered and dreamed of returning to was long gone. Emily has moved on, at least in part, and seems to be functioning and bordering happiness. She’s somewhat fragile, of course, but she manages. She’s allowed herself to at least attempt to move on. Emily is current engaged Ian (Jason Flemyng) – who looks like the Joker crossed with a 1970s Bond villain but that’s neither here nor there – and she lives with him and his son, who is the same age Oliver would have been. She dotes on him and clearly loves him and there’s a complexity to that affection that is explored, though not in detail because it’s just so obvious, sad and brutally understandable.

Whatever progress Emily has made falls apart when Tony calls with his latest lead. If Emily has managed to start over even slightly, then Tony has wallowed in the pit. He’s near broke, a low functioning alcoholic, deeply resentful and clinging to leads that generally go nowhere. He’s able, through the help of the now retired Baptiste to get some footing and reopen the case, though the mayor isn’t pleased because the initial investigation nearly ruined the economy and reputation of this tourist town (much like in Jaws).

Nesbitt and O’Connor are absorbing in their performances. They make The Missing feel more like a documentary than a TV show. There is a raw earnestness in their acting that is painfully sad and completely human. Since the series is airing on both the BBC and Starz, I was able to watch the first three episodes, and there isn’t much in the way of salvation. The series gets darker and more emotionally untethered (the ending to “The Meeting” is one of the simplest and scariest things I’ve ever watched) but The Missing isn’t a slog. You never feel weighed down by the story, and if the storytelling beats weren’t as strong as they were, or as strategically released, this would be a completely unpleasant experience. Instead, we have something that is ugly but worth the pursuit.

The Williams brothers have taken a number of clichés and turned them around, making The Missing less of a show and more of an experience. Baptiste is a brilliant retired detective with a crippling condition he obtained on his final case. He wants to enjoy retirement but is drawn back into those dangling loose ends. Normally, his put-upon wife would be virtually another villain to deal with, but here she’s understanding and helpful. She’s not happy about the reopening of the case, but she gets why her husband is doing this. In return, he clearly draws strength from her and the love they share. In other words, he isn’t a typical noir detective. By having the British Tony and Emily lose their son in the north of France, we get a fish-out-of-water story that’s made closer to the ground by the fact that so few subtitles are utilized. Cops are having conversations around them and they have no idea what’s being said or done. Malik (Arsher Ali) isn’t your typical bloodsucking reporter. Sure, he seemingly doesn’t have a conscience, but he does have integrity and a strong need for the truth, whatever it is, to be revealed wholly and completely. It’s a strange thing to see in a fictional reporter. In a number of ways, he and Baptiste are the moral compasses of the show even as they both lie and manipulate to get their way.

This review isn’t entirely a love-fest. Along the way there are some hiccups – mostly to do with the larger story at play. Ian (Ken Stott) is clearly involved in Oliver’s disappearance and is introduced as a sudden benefactor to Tony and Emily. The police are always very wary of sudden help and they tend to investigate people so involved in helping because, statistically speaking, they were probably involved in it and get off on seeing the results of their actions. Ariel Castro did the same thing and though the police never caught him through these actions, he didn’t come out of nowhere like Ian did and offer $100,000 to anyone with information. It reads just a little too easy a way to introduce Ian as the bad guy. However, the larger conspiracy at foot – involving a human trafficking ring – is very interesting and frightening in a minimalist way (director Tom Shankland made the blinking red light of a beaten up security camera in an empty garage scary). There is a feeling of journalistic reality to it, and it even seems to call up shades of the Franklin scandal here in America.

The other side of this is Bourg (Titus de Voogdt), the multiple-conviction carrying pedophile who was accused (wrongfully) of Oliver’s kidnapping. When we meet him again in the “present” timeline, he is trying to get his life together and seeking treatment for his perversion by taking a hormone that would destroy his sex drive. Under most circumstances this might be a good way to make the audience begrudgingly feel empathy for him. If only it wasn’t established that he does indeed know what happened to Oliver and never said a word about it. Yes, his life was threatened, but if you’re that sorry and desiring redemption that strongly, you would probably give the police a call, but then the show would be over in two episodes instead of eight, so there’s that.

The Missing is a series that will stay with you long after it’s over. However, this is the perfect example of niche storytelling. It’s a damn near guarantee that this story doesn’t have a happy ending, and the events leading to this unhappy ending will likely be equally as unhappy. Keep that in mind before watching.

The Missing airs Saturdays on Starz and Tuesdays on the BBC.

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