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Television Review

Lives upended, answers elusive in ‘The Missing’

Frances O’Connor and James Nesbitt (right, with Tcheky Karyo) play the parents of a missing boy in the eight-episode Starz miniseries.Jules Heath/New Pictures Limited/Company Television/Company

We’ve seen plenty of stories about missing children and the heartbroken parents who search for them relentlessly, both in fiction and, alas, in the real world. But Starz’s “The Missing” is a reminder that familiar material can indeed yield extremely absorbing drama, that often the excellence of a series comes from the crispness of the script, the intelligence of the directing, and the intensity of the acting, and not necessarily the newness of the concept.

This haunting eight-episode miniseries, co-produced by the BBC, toggles between two time frames. In 2006, Brits Tony and Emily Hughes take their 5-year-old son, Oliver, on vacation to France, and their car breaks down in a quaint town called Chalons Du Bois. After a swim in a local pool, Tony and Oliver get drawn into a throng of World Cup celebrants and, in the chaos, Oliver disappears. In 2014, Tony is a broken man, still hoping to find Oliver even though the official case is closed. Time has not healed his wounds, and Emily, too, is still suffering acutely, if less openly. They’re no longer married, and Tony has returned to Chalons Du Bois to look into a clue he has unearthed.


As each of these story lines moves forward, facts from one resonate cleverly against facts from the other. Written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, the script is tight and smart. The number of possible perpetrators multiplies, of course, in both the past and the present; that’s how these mysteries progress, fooling us with red herrings and toying with our sympathies. In this way, “The Missing” shares a lot in common with “Broadchurch,” “Top of the Lake,” and the first season of “The Killing,” three recent child-based thrillers that also misled us on purpose. I’m betting that “The Missing,” which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m., isn’t going to abuse our trust by giving us one too many false leads; the early storytelling seems above that.

What “The Missing” has, in addition to the compelling plotting, is an emotional realism that pulls you in and holds you there. The miniseries gives us Oliver’s disappearance and his parents’ raw first reactions without undercutting them with manipulation or sentimentality. James Nesbitt brings a visceral punch to Tony’s shock, as he screams “Olly” while the sports celebration rages on around him. Nesbitt, looking a little like a frazzled George Clooney, is also a powerhouse in the present-tense scenes, with despair written in the lines of his face and his black brows. And Frances O’Connor makes Emily’s desperation palpable, so that you completely understand why she breaks down when, in the midst of the trauma, a stranger is kind to her.


A retired French detective, a journalist, a cop, and others enter the story, adding complications and possibilities along the way. They all add plenty to the intricate mystery story in “The Missing.” But the core of the miniseries is the universal parental nightmare, the remarkable endurance of hope, and the deeply human need for closure.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Matthew