The first episode of Starz’s new series The Missing features what might be the most haunting images I’ve seen on television all year. In a crowded bar in France during a 2006 World Cup game, five-year-old Oliver suddenly disappears while his father is temporarily distracted by the TV. When Tony (James Nesbitt) slowly begins to realize that his child has gone missing, there’s a fascinating and terrifying build-up of panic that’s almost tangible. Aside from a shrill, high-pitched sound cue (the show’s sound direction is ace throughout), the noise cuts out as the camera focuses on Tony’s face, wrenching with horror, and his frantic desperation — all juxtaposed with the joyous celebration of a soccer goal. Nesbitt’s acting is so superb that it makes the episode genuinely hard to watch, filling the viewer with the same anxiety Tony displays. The Missing hooks you immediately, and then makes a strong case for staying.
The Missing, which is currently airing in Britain on BBC One and will premiere in America on Starz this Saturday night, is a limited, eight-episode series that aims to tell a contained story. It is not a new story: Many mysteries and thrillers revolve around the case of a missing child — a reliably heart-wrenching, unspeakably tragic premise that is ripe with emotional drama and cuts deep for parents — but The Missing brings something new to table, largely thanks to the actors’ performances. The drama also follows two different timelines: 2006, when Olly went missing, and the present, when Tony discovers a photograph that could shed new light on the case. It’s a strangely effective device that makes both timelines equally absorbing even though we are immediately aware that Olly is never found during those years.
In each episode, the narrative jumps back and forth between these two time periods. We meet Tony and his wife Emily (France O’Connor) in 2006, who end up stranded when their car breaks down, resulting in them staying in the small town where Olly goes missing. That timeline explores the actual crime, its direct aftermath, the investigation with its multiple suspects, and the effects of Olly’s disappearance on Tony and Emily’s marriage. Emily is inconsolable and practically unable to function in any capacity, while Tony is plagued by feelings of guilt and uselessness, mixed in with rage and frustration. He is understandably unable to move past his son’s disappearance and refuses to give up looking for answers.
In the other time period, 2014, we learn that Tony still hasn’t given up. He doggedly pursues answers eight years later, especially after discovering new evidence, but he’s still not much closer to finding his son. He’s utterly alone, having alienated basically everyone (including his wife), and all he has left is the hope that Olly is still out there and alive. His hope is so persuasive that he manages to enlist the help of Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo), a former investigator who is now retired but also unable to let the case go.
The Missing is the story of a family torn apart by tragedy, but, in the second episode, it quickly becomes much more expansive. Rather than only following the parents and exploring how their lives have changed in the past eight years (Emily, for example, is trying to move in a different direction with the police officer who falls in love with her), The Missing also follows other people with ties to the crime. One of the most disturbingly compelling characters is Vincent Bourg (Titus De Voogdt), a pedophile who was questioned during the original investigation. He was treated as expected by the detectives — the interrogation scenes are very familiar if you’ve ever seen any sort of crime drama — but The Missing doesn’t just dispose of him. We see how his life has panned out during these eight years, getting glimpses into his personal narrative that reveal how even he still is preoccupied with Olly’s disappearance, and how he plays into the 2014 world.
What’s also great about The Missing is that it’s not solely a mystery or a crime drama; it’s also a full-fledged thriller, complete with shady characters, car chases, and violence — yet none of that ever takes away from the central psychological elements that drive the series. It’s tough to go too into detail about what makes The Missing so rich and addictive without spoiling major plot points because every episode ends with some sort of twist or grand revelation that will hold you attention week after week. (I am dying to discuss the final minutes of Episode 3.)
With only eight episodes (five were sent to critics; every one of them is strong), The Missing is a show that you feel good about committing to for a few weeks. This also means that there is a set ending that could make or break the show, and that could result in either triumph or pure devastation for Tony. Things don’t look too good — as one detective puts it, you tend to either find a missing child immediately or not at all — but there is such a rich tapestry of characters, such powerful acting, and such a gripping story that you’ll want to stick around to the end.