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New miniseries The Missing elevates a familiar premise through great writing and acting

James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor star in the riveting new miniseries, The Missing.
James Nesbitt and Frances O'Connor star in the riveting new miniseries, The Missing.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You need to watch: The Missing

When is it on: Saturdays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Starz. It debuted last week, but if you have Starz, you can catch up with the first episode via Starz Play or Starz On Demand.

What is it: The latest British import to hit American shores, The Missing concerns what happens to a couple after their young son disappears while they are on vacation in France. The story will unspool over eight episodes and reveal the answers to its many mysteries by the end of the run.

Why you should watch: You probably don't need yet another show about a dead or missing child in your life, not after there have been so many films and series about just such a thing over the past several years. And, to be sure, The Missing can be a bit of a wallow in the grief of two parents.

But this is also a really, really well-executed version of this particular story, building up enormously sympathetic characters, to the point where you'll start to deeply care about even some of the suspects in the disappearance of the child. For instance, it's a rare work of art that can make you feel a squeamishly uncomfortable amount of empathy for someone with sexual compulsions toward children who's trying his level best to not act upon them. The Missing manages that trick.

To be clear, all of the above is going to mark this as not everybody's cup of tea — nor should it be. But if you can get past all of that, The Missing boasts considerable riches in other areas. The story is told across two time periods (in 2006, when the boy first disappears, and in the present day, when his father discovers something that might at long last solve the case), and though hopping between timelines isn't exactly a new thing for television to tackle — hello, True Detective The Missing uses this device in haunting, beautiful ways, as writers Harry and Jack Williams play around with all of the ways people can be marked by tragedy, even as they strive to move past their darkest days.

The way the Williamses fill in gaps and puzzle pieces in the story across the two timelines is deeply satisfying. The show boils down to a long series of hushed conversations, conversations that provide emotional context but rarely give the meaning the characters so desperately seek. A confrontation aboard a boat that closes out the fifth episode is particularly stunning in this regard. Again, it can be tough to take, but it's so rewarding if you can get on its wavelength.

The Missing is also brilliantly, brutally acted. As Emily, the boy's mother, Frances O'Connor is terrific as someone wound tight by the disappearance of her child, only to find life kept turning the screws on her, while Tcheky Karyo has a wounded gravity to him as a French policeman haunted by the case.

But this is James Nesbitt's show, and it's him you'll keep watching for. As Tony, the boy's father, Nesbitt (best known for his work in the miniseries Jekyll) delves deeper and deeper into worlds he wants no part of, simply to find his son. There are shades of George C. Scott's dark work in Paul Schrader's Hardcore, a 1979 film about a father's search for his daughter in the world of pornography. But there's also the constant, aching sense of how this search has hollowed out Tony, turned him into less a man than a walking quest, who will complete that quest via any means necessary.

And, yeah, none of that is particularly fresh, but in the hands of this cast, these writers, and director Tom Shankland, who fills every episode with indelible images, there's plenty here to love.

You'll know if you're in or out by... the end of the first episode, which features one of the most ingenious cliffhangers you'll see. Check it out now.

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