Update (April 16): Despite my generally negative review of Missing (below), I decided to watch another couple of episodes via video on demand. I have to say the show does improve in episodes 4 and 5. The son starts to act more like a hero and less like a baby. Ashley Judd is not called on to perform as many ridiculous feats of physical strength and skill. (There was something absurd about her racing around on a motorbike in an early episode.) The plot twists, though predictable, do make the story more interesting, and the increased use of flashbacks helps to flesh out the character of Becca Winstone. It's still not in the same league as 24 or Taken, but it's getting better. And the scenery is really nice. Incidentally, Missing is a limited-run (ten episode) series, and the producers vow that everything will be wrapped up at the end. I guess I'll stick with it now.
Recently I watched the first three episodes of the ABC primetime series Missing via my cable company's video-on-demand service. (You can also watch back episodes on the show's official site.) I'd heard some good things about the show, and I liked the basic premise. But after three episodes, I'm not particularly interested in going any further. I spent some time thinking about why the show didn't quite work for me, and although I doubt that anyone else cares about my thoughts on the matter, I figured I might as well post them here. After all, as I've said before, I have to fill up the blog with something.
Missing is essentially the movie Taken with gender reversals. In Taken, a father with a background in Special Forces searches Europe for his kidnapped daughter, dispatching a variety of bad guys along the way. In Missing, a mother with a background in espionage searches Europe for her kidnapped son, also dispatching a variety of bad guys, though without the savage panache that Liam Neeson brought to his role.
The ex-CIA mom thrust into this international adventure is Becca Winstone, played by Ashley Judd. Though the series features an excellent supporting cast, it's definitely Judd's show to carry. And right there we have a problem.
Having written a number of thrillers about kick-ass females, I have a certain affection for this genre. But it's not the easiest thing to pull off, especially on the screen. You have to believe, or at least sort of believe, that the woman can beat up or kill trained thugs and assassins twice her size. This usually works only if she's in undeniably top condition. When you first get a glimpse of Linda Hamilton's pumped-up biceps in Terminator 2, you're pretty much willing to believe she's capable of the over-the-top action scenes that follow. Jennifer Garner in Alias may not have been quite as menacingly steroidal, but she had the sleek, toned body of a natural athlete.
Ashley Judd, on the other hand, just doesn't look all that formidable. She doesn't appear to be in especially good shape; her arms lack definition, and she has a rather frumpy look. None of this helps to sell the idea that she can transform herself from dowdy hausfrau into lethal combatant at a moment's notice. During the action scenes, I mostly found myself thinking, I don't believe this woman could really do this stuff.
Other actresses might have pulled it off more convincingly. I could see Sharon Stone kicking butt in a show like this. Sigourney Weaver too, maybe. One reviewer suggested Maria Bello, a sensible choice. Even petite Holly Hunter has a fierceness and a wiry energy about her that could make it work. Judd just doesn't seem to have that kind of mojo.
Successful shows in this genre have generally relied on a gimmick of some kind to add new life to tired situations. The conceit that every episode took place in real time made 24 unique and placed interesting constraints on the writers. But there's nothing really new about Missing. It plays out in bland formulaic fashion. And unlike 24–or Taken, for that matter–you don't get the sense that all the usual rules of storytelling have been thrown out the window, that the hero can do outrageously cruel and violent things to get what he wants, that the line between good and evil is not entirely clear, and that all the characters except the protagonist are potentially expendable. In 24, you never knew who was going to get knocked off next. No matter how much emotion you might have invested in any supporting character, you knew that the show's producers were just crazy enough to neutralize him or her in a heartbeat. This created real tension, because you genuinely didn't know where the story was going or who might be next to die. None of this holds true for Missing, where you can feel entirely sure there won't be any dramatic shocks to your system. Jack Bauer's wife died in the final seconds of 24's first season. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that Becca Winstone's son does not suffer a similar fate.
Besides the cautious approach to storytelling, there are some predictable plot twists. At least I'm assuming that certain plot twists are coming our way. In the prologue of the pilot we see Becca's husband apparently blown up in an automobile ten years ago. But since he's played by a major actor, Sean Bean, we can safely assume that he wasn't really killed and that he will be back. Presumably he faked his own death for some reason, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he's involved in the son's kidnapping either directly or indirectly. (There is already a hint of this in episode 3, but it was obvious from the get-go.) We're also repeatedly told that Becca has been out of spycraft and working in a flower shop for a decade. The show's insistence on this point leads me to assume that it's a lie, and that, in fact, she has continued to work undercover all these years, though not for the CIA. I'm guessing this is one of the Big Revelations yet to come. (And really it should be, since otherwise her ability to jump right back into spy mode without missing a beat is even less believable.)
There's also a certain sloppiness to the writing. In a show like this, if it's played straight–as Missing definitely is–you have to get the little details right. But all too often the details seem wrong. As just one example, a character in episode 2 manages to uncover all the details of a corrupt police official's secret dealings on the cop's computer (conveniently the cop keeps all this damning info in one place), uploads all the files to a Wikileaks-type site, and apparently generates a huge amount of traffic–all within a matter of, I dunno, maybe fifteen minutes. Watching it, I couldn't help thinking that in real life it would take a hell of a lot longer to pull this off. It would've been more realistic for him to download the entire contents of the hard drive onto a backup drive and then mail the backup drive to the authorities. Is this a little thing? Yeah. But the little things matter.
Of course, big things matter too. And some of the big things in Missing are problematic as well. A couple of those things involve the kidnapped son, who corresponds to Liam Neeson's kidnapped daughter (played by Maggie Grace) in Taken.
Taken moves at bullet speed and gives us no hint of the daughter's condition until the climax. As a result, we don't have time to wonder if she's making any effort to escape on her own. Moreover, when we do eventually see her, we realize that she has been kept drugged throughout her captivity, rendering her pliable and helpless.
But the kid in Missing isn't drugged or incapacitated in any way; at least by the third episode, he is able to roam at will throughout a large medieval castle where he's being held prisoner. He's athletic, smart, and 18 years old–old enough to join the military. Yet he makes only the most halfhearted effort at escape. Mostly he just seems to be waiting for his mom to rescue him. His main effort at survival is to leave coded messages for her to find. There's something weak and childish about his apparently boundless faith that his mom will make everything all right.
This raises another problem. In Taken, when Maggie Grace tearfully embraces her father at the climax and says she knew he would come for her, it makes sense because she already knew he was a bad-ass with international connections and commando skills. But the kid in Missing has been kept in the dark about his mom's CIA past. As far as he's concerned, she's an ordinary suburban mother who runs a flower shop. So why is he so sure she'll track him down and rescue him? Does he expect a middle-aged widow with (as far as he knows) no knowledge of weapons, tactics, or espionage to track him to the villains' isolated layer and burst in with guns blazing? Sure, Maggie Grace expects Liam Neeson to do that–but he's freakin' Liam Neeson, scarred, tattooed, tough as an old boot, a guy who takes celebrity bodyguard assignments to earn cash in his spare time. For all the kid on Missing knows, his mom has never done anything more adventurous in her spare time than take a Pilates class.
Missing offers its share of pleasures, and I can see why some people would like it. It's filmed in attractive foreign locations–supposedly France and Italy, though nearly all of it is actually shot in the Czech Republic. The cast is good, even if I have my reservations about the star; the production values are high; the pace is brisk, and the frenetic action scenes are sometimes effective. There are worse ways to spend an hour. But to me, the whole thing feels a little bit too familiar, too safe, too obvious, and at times, too dumbed down and poorly thought out.
I'd really like to like this show. But I don't. Something just seems to be ... missing.