Missing debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
It may not be surprising to hear that Missing, a show with a title that is almost epic in its blandness, does not attempt to break any new ground. In the much-hyped 10-episode action series, Ashley Judd stars as Becca Winstone, a florist and former CIA operative who comes out of retirement when her teenage son disappears in Rome. Her journey leads her on an ass-kicking adventure across Europe, where she teams up with some of her old espionage buddies and metes out vengeance against former adversaries. Along the way, the pieces of her back-story—including the decade-old murder of her husband, who was also a CIA agent—slowly come into focus (this is a popular formula this season on ABC, apparently). Sounds like the ideal formula for a little escapist fun, right? Scarecrow & Mrs. King updated for the millennium, or something like that? Alas, no. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen Judd as the gun-toting, vigilante mom before, or maybe it’s because everything about this show is willfully, aggressively generic, but Missing is a snooze.
Part of the problem is that, even though much of the series was shot on location in Italy, France, and the Czech Republic, Missing somehow manages to look like a cheesy green-screen travelogue. Like the globetrotting gnome in those Travelocity ads, Judd’s character just keeps popping up in front of immediately identifiable European landmarks. Look, there she is sucker-punching some French policemen in front of the Arc De Triomphe! Hey, that’s her again, listening to a mysterious voicemail in front of the Trevi Fountain! Despite having what I’m sure was a considerable budget, the show looks cheap. In fact, I was surprised to find out that Missing was shot on location, because the show is sorely lacking a sense of atmosphere or grittiness. Is has none of the buzzing vitality that’s usually the byproduct of filming in an urban setting. Instead, Judd’s character seems to float in a weird, hermetically sealed universe comprised of nothing but postcard tableaus.
It doesn’t help that the two episodes I saw played less like a coherent narrative than a string of clichéd action-movie set pieces: There’s the Violent Encounter With A Dangerous Stranger On A Train, The Fisticuffs That Result In A Broken Glass Coffee Table, The Covert Search Of A Shadowy Warehouse While Dodging The Night Watchman, and, of course, The Expository Dialogue Delivered In Front Of A Whiteboard Which Includes Photos Of All The Main Characters. At this blistering rate, the producers are lucky they’ve only 10 episodes to fill, otherwise they’d surely exhaust all their options.
Nowadays, it’s fashionable for TV shows and movies to be opaque and insider-y to the point of inscrutability. Missing represents the opposite extreme, a show that barely challenges the mental faculties of the viewer in any way. This is the kind of show where characters say declare things like, “I’m going to break into French intelligence!” or, when someone’s cell phone rings, a caller ID reading “FAMILY” pops up over a stock picture of a girl hugging a Labrador retriever. Missing is so overly expository that it’s actually lazy, like the writers couldn’t be bothered to conjure a world with any level of detail, idiosyncrasy, or specificity. The end result is not just formulaic, but surprisingly suspense-free. With so little texture, depth, or subtlety, the show barely leaves an impression of any kind.
To be fair, the series does improve somewhat in its second episode, as we begin to learn more about Becca’s backstory, but I don't hold out much hope for long-term improvement. A big part of the problem is that, as written, Becca is a missed opportunity. A literal soccer mom—her son is a big fan of AC Milan, which is another one of the references the show tosses in there in a clumsy attempt at verisimilitude—she discovers her son has gone missing and promptly ditches her job at the local flower shop. Becca arrives in Europe looking like a chic MILF on vacation, wearing a pale pink cardigan and a pair of towering espadrilles, and then promptly starts cracking skulls. It’s a scenario that practically begs for a little tongue-in-cheek humor, but Missing is, unfortunately, a wink-free affair. Being tough is good and all, but being an interesting, remotely believable character is even better.