Lately, when dramas want to raise the emotional stakes, they rely on an old tactic: children in mortal danger. Carrie almost drowned her baby on Homeland. A cannibal tried to break a tyke’s neck on The Walking Dead. There are child murders on True Detective, Scandal, Gracepoint, and now — possibly — The Missing, a new drama from Starz. It’s a terrible fact of life that children sometimes die, but these numbers are disproportionate. Now that dead kids are everywhere, the worst horror imaginable feels banal.
To be fair, I’m only assuming that the British boy on The Missing is dead: Five-year-old Oliver loses track of his parents, Emily (Frances O’Connor) and Tony (James Nesbitt), while vacationing in France, and in the eight years since he was last seen, the detective (Tchéky Karyo) has started to treat the case as a homicide. Told through two time frames — one shows the immediate aftermath of Oliver’s disappearance, the other finds Tony investigating today — the series trades in familiar archetypes. There’s the journalist (Arsher Ali) bent on exploiting the story and the detective who won’t retire before he solves one last case.
There are also hints of greatness. The cinematography is beautiful, with the present cast in a melancholy blue and the past cast in yellow, as if to remind us that terrible things are done in broad daylight. Some minor characters are intriguing: Titus De Voogdt is haunting as a local pedophile. And each episode has thoughtful things to say about paths untaken and lives unled. But The Missing doesn’t have much to say about the loss of a child beyond that it’s an Unbearable Tragedy. In one scene, a land developer (Ken Stott) helping Tony reveals why he loves bluesman Robert Johnson’s music. ”You can feel him aching,” he says. ”Always makes me feel better about my own life.” That’s one reason to watch dead-child dramas, too. But The Missing makes me wonder: Is that enough? B