The disappearance of a child. It is a haunting possibility, a shuddersome nightmare and the basis for numerous dramas. The emotional material and the tension are built in – the guilt of parents and others, the searing need of the viewer to know that the child is found and safe.
In an odd move this weekend, CTV is airing two serious dramas about a child's disappearance, consecutively. Both are the creation of Canadian writers. One is a U.S. network's high-stakes, attention-grabbing, short-run series. The other is a Canadian-made miniseries set for internal distribution. Both are brimming with the slow revelation of dark secrets and terrible lies. One is fast paced and the other is quieter, more brooding. Both are good, engrossing mysteries, although neither is quite as blisteringly good as you'd want.
The Disappearance (Sunday, CTV, 9 p.m.) is created and written by the Montreal-based writing team of Normand Daneau and Geneviève Simard. It is an elaborate, softly gripping drama about a boy, Anthony Sullivan, who disappears during a treasure hunt, on his 10th birthday.
The context to the disappearance is muddled, at first. Anthony is an immensely clever boy who, just before he disappeared, had gone to school and unveiled a project about his neighbourhood that clearly showed him to be an obsessive snooper. Photos of neighbours and their homes were secretly taken. The treasure hunt is a complicated game created by his grandfather Henry (Peter Coyote), a retired judge and former Crown prosecutor. Also, a formidable busybody with sharp tongue.
Anthony's parents are divorcing but in a conciliatory manner. This is the very Canadian touch. His dad, Luke (Aden Young from Rectify), is overworked and both guilty about his parenting and angry at Henry. His mom, Helen (Camille Sullivan, who is gloriously good), is weighed down by the force of Henry's presence in her life.
It is a beautifully made series. The lushness and colour templates are striking. But that lushness is also its weakness. On the evidence of the first episodes, there is tension but the tone lacks menace or a sense of real hazard. The grandfather character dominates. Peter Coyote is very good at this sort of role – the controlling, angry man. Here, though, he doesn't leave much space for the other characters. There is too much standing around while the grandfather makes melodramatic speeches and the intricate web of flashbacks to his character's early career as a prosecutor seems much less connected to the main story than it should be.
The six-episode series is certainly recommended but lacks the quiet intensity and precise, unfussy restraint of Cardinal, CTV's most successful foray into original crime drama. As a twist on the disappeared-child genre template, it isn't twisted enough.
Ten Days in the Valley (Sunday, ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.) is another kettle of fish. Created by Canadian Tassie Cameron, it stars Kyra Sedgwick as Jane Sadler, an ambitious, overworked TV showrunner, writing and overseeing a hit TV crime drama and raising a young daughter, Lake (Abigail Pniowsky), while her ex-husband seethes with resentment and rage. In the first episode, Jane goes to her writing shed in the garden to work on a scene in her TV drama and when she emerges in the morning, Lake is gone.
Suspicion immediately falls on the ex, but LAPD detective John Bird (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is also immediately wary of Jane. He's very aware of her TV work – "The last one you made brought down the entire San Diego police department." To which Jane answers, "It was a documentary." So many entanglements are suggested in the opening hour that the viewer knows a cornucopia of tricky revelations is coming.
See, as the detective looks into Jane's personal and professional life, he discovers multiple lies and indiscretions. There are drugs found – drugs play a major role – and since this is a drama about a TV drama being made in L.A., everybody seems to have had a sexual involvement with everybody else, whether it was a secret affair or a quickie in an alley.
While it is all rather overripe, Sedgwick is a marvel to behold. Her full-throttle embracing of the role anchors everything. She is a wonderfully physical actor, fully engaged here; no gesture or sigh is wasted and her ability to emanate the character's toxic mixture of strength and panic is astonishing. This is emphatically a drama about a mother, created by a woman, starring a strong female actor and written by women with a firm eye on the politics of work, motherhood, sex and drugs and damaged men, all happening in the entertainment racket.
One American critic has harrumphed that ABC is making a mistake in thinking that a missing-child drama about an unreliable mother in the TV business is going to connect with the network's viewers. It's a moot point, especially as the series gets seriously soaped up in the second episode and it has a kind of precarious grip on plausibility.
For instance, there are tensions in the writer's room about Jane's show – the one she's writing – and other writers suggest that the show-within-a-show might be rescued, dramatically, by a child-disappearance scenario. At that point, you're either cruising with the propulsive energy of Ten Days in the Valley, or you're rolling your eyes.
Both Cameron and Sedgwick have said that the show is less about the TV business than it is about the pressures and worries of being a mother and juggling a high-stress career. That's true and it is the value of the show.
In neither series, as entertaining as they are, is there the full sense of heartbreak and horror that accompanies the disappearance of a child. Two good dramas, though.