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John Doyle: The Missing is a brilliant thriller about unbearable suffering

Got a great one for you today. A sobering, haunting and profoundly complex, yet profoundly human, crime drama. It is recommended with a caveat – it is at times shockingly dark and will disturb you to your bones.

You will remember, if you are a connoisseur of the great crime dramas, The Missing. The series starred James Nesbitt as the wracked, angry dad of five-year-old Oliver, who had disappeared in France years before. It was Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated. And justifiably, as it was original, vital and intense.

The Missing (Wednesday, Super Channel, 9 p.m. and on-demand) is the second season. It is an entirely different story, from the same creators, and linked only by the presence of the avuncular, weather-beaten French detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) who is now older and more battered than ever. But he's still searching for clues about missing children, his area of heartbreaking specialty.

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This version, again a BBC/Starz co-production, is set mainly in the German town of Eckhausen, where there is a large British Army base. In 2003, teenager Alice Webster walks out of her school and wanders into the woods. She's upset after an argument with her parents about getting a tattoo. She's kidnapped by someone driving a yellow van.

Eleven years later, Alice stumbles into the centre of town, ill and weak. In an ambulance to the local hospital she mentions the name "Sophie Giroux," another girl who went missing. Alice's family is astonished, relieved, stunned by her return. Someone at the army base informs Baptiste, now retired in France, that Alice returned and that she mentioned Sophie Giroux. Baptiste was working on that case.

The drama exists, tautly and at times perplexingly, in three time frames. There is the year Alice disappeared. There is 2014, the year of her return. And there is the present, when, it is suggested, she has died. Certainly, in the present, her family has disintegrated. Mom (Keeley Hawes) and dad (David Morrissey) are barely speaking. Dad is having an affair. Also, dad has scars on his skin that aren't there in 2014. Alice's brother, Matthew (Jake Davies), has become a violent and drug-addled thug.

The entire family is scarred emotionally, and brutally so. Yet we have, in the first episodes, no strong sense of why. We only have forebodings, and they are weighty. When first examined in hospital, it is discovered that Alice has given birth. And yet she denies this. When asked again about Sophie Giroux, Alice says she cannot remember mentioning her.

Meanwhile, Baptiste, for reasons unclear, is determined to enter Iraq. There, it seems, is a soldier, or former soldier, he wants to interview. He makes cryptic remarks, while explaining his task, that when Alice was found in 2014, she wasn't freed at all.

The core of this intoxicatingly fine drama is anchored in its mood and tone. It is deeply disturbing, unafraid to take the viewer into a territory where unspeakable loss is on display, raw and unvarnished. One look at the returned Alice in 2014 is enough to suggest shockingly deep trauma has been visited upon the young woman. And then, slowly but steadily, it becomes clear that what is visible on the surface is nothing compared with what is beneath.

The engine that drives it, cunningly, is the short span between the return of Alice and the present. Thus, the plot is coiled, formidably tense, as the aftermath of that return is broached slowly.

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The Missing lingers, in the most humane manner, on a lurid, intriguing premise – what if a missing child returns? This is a minor contemporary pop-culture obsession. It is there in the recent Netflix drama The OA and in the French drama The Returned, and the topic has been brooded upon in true-crime productions. And yet, here, the terrible, poignant grief and confusion is subtly expanded to compass a larger world – the world of chaos in Iraq and the burden upon soldiers to witness horror. For all its precise dramatic twisting and turning, the series is drenched in loss and mourning.

All parents are disturbed by the dark possibilities laid out in The Missing. But you don't have to be a parent to be made chillingly, distressingly melancholy by what unfolds here. And, at the same time, admire what evokes such feelings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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