Why you should care

Because it’s not every television show that can pull off heartbreaking and addictive.

From the opening bars of its haunting theme song “Come Home,” it’s clear that by watching The Missing you are entering into someone else’s nightmare. And you don’t need to have children, or even like them, to get swept away in the pathos of Tony and Emily Hugheses’ predicament in the hit BBC television drama. But what keeps audiences returning to the nightmare surrounding the disappearance of their 5-year-old son, Oliver, is not the desire to rubberneck an unimaginable tragedy, but the allure of a mystery whose solution always seems to lie just beyond one’s grasp.

The eight-part series, penned by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, plays out across several time periods within a meticulously constructed ecosystem of loss, despair and suspicious characters. The show’s plot alternates between the cicada-filled summer of 2006, in which Oliver vanishes while on holiday with his parents in the fictional French town of Chalons du Bois (actually Huy, Belgium), and the wintry despair of 2014, in which the still-distraught Tony Hughes, armed with a new clue and estranged from Emily (Frances O’Connor), returns to the scene of his son’s disappearance. Irish actor James Nesbitt delivers an unforgettable performance as the tortured Tony, a father racked with guilt after losing Olly in a crowded bar and doggedly determined to find his missing son. Nesbitt, as Sam Wollaston of The Guardian writes, is “so very very good at pain; he doesn’t just share it, he forces it on you.”

The series’s jumpy, flash-back-flash-forward style — once even taking a detour into 2009 — can occasionally induce narrative vertigo, and even some of its most supportive reviewers felt the series finale did not live up to the lofty expectations. But disorientation and disappointment are par for the course in The Missing, including for cast members like Nesbitt who were holed up in Belgium for months on end. “It meant we were all disconnected from our own lives,” said Nesbitt in a recent interview, “and that reflected the story, too, where a man is dealing with a system he doesn’t understand and where he does not speak the language.”

But when you do, as a viewer, emerge from the disorienting, and sometimes harrowing, nightmare that is Tony and Emily’s quest for Olly, it’s hard not to surface with a newfound appreciation for everything in your own life — marriage, children, friends, sanity — that is not missing.

Video:

Trailer for “The Missing”

Watch full episodes on Amazon, Starz or BBC. “The Missing” will return for a second series with a new case.

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