BBC’s The Missing

For anybody who’s a fan of mysteries centred on missing people, cold cases, decades-old secrets, multiple timelines, meticulous police procedural intrigue and deeply affecting human drama, I’d highly recommend BBC’s The Missing, Europe’s answer of sorts to HBO’s True Detective. This series not only contains everything I just listed above, but it executes each one of those elements pretty much flawlessly, and is one of those shows that compels you to put your phone down to track every detail, absorb every frame and immerse oneself completely, a seldom attained state of storytelling nirvana. So there are two seasons, done in anthology form, the only connective tissue between them besides thematic material being Tchéky Karyo’s deeply pragmatic, selfless freelance investigator Julien Baptiste, a sort of St. Francis of ex-cop PI’s who goes where he is needed, compelled on an elemental level to help out families whose children have disappeared.

Season one sees Baptiste assist a couple from the UK (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) whose young son disappeared into thin air one night while they are vacationing in a small French village. The police work tirelessly, it becomes a media sensation and two separate timelines eight years apart from one another unfold in symbiotic parallels. This case not only affects the parents, Baptiste and the local police force but also has a ripple effect into the nearby towns and eventually all over the continent as it becomes a notorious mystery akin to that of Maddy McCann. It’s a taut, emotional, incredibly complex series of events that isn’t too sensationalist but feels organic, momentous and immediate. The second season, which I loved even more than the first, takes place over in Germany where a challenging mystery plays out with the backdrop of a military garrison and all the families involved. Baptiste is here investigating the reappearance of a girl named Alice Webster who vanished nearly a decade before and may have connections to yet another girl that he failed to find many years ago. Her parents (David Morrisey and Keeley Hawes) are just glad to have their baby back until bit by bit doubt creeps in and it seems like something about her is.. off. So begins a series of revelations, callbacks to an older mystery years before in the Iraqi war and the ever present yet unseen presence of a monster who has been kidnapping girls for a long time.

This is peak long form television and taken as a pair of dual stories glued together by Karyo’s Baptiste, it’s a near perfect achievement in storytelling, a collective sixteen episodes that feel as if literal years of content has been presented in real time. I prefer the second season because it feels more well rounded and cohesive as a cinematic story, also it’s a lot less bleak than the first. These girls have been through hell and it has bled out into every other character around them, which is part of this show’s genius; this isn’t just about the victims, the perpetrators and the authorities who try to make sense of it all. This affects everyone who touches it or even hears about it, detail and careful attention is paid right down to the second, third and fourth tier characters until we feel immersed in a tangible world of human beings and every complicated, contradictory, evil, compassionate, inexplicable and every other act under the sun that they’re capable of. The acting is absolutely 100% top quality all around, not a false note or weak performance in sight and wonderful work provided by folks like Jason Flemyng, Roger Allam, Laura Fraser, Anastasia Hille, Olafur Darri Olaffsson, Abigail Hardingham, Saïd Taghmoui, Titus De Voogt, Eric Godon, Ken Stott and many more. Simply put: if you’re looking for a binge-worthy, addictive, intellectually stimulating, emotionally nourishing, all-bases-covered piece of programming, look no further because this is about as top shelf as anything gets. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime right now, too.

-Nate Hill

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – Season 1

If you’re a fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book series you’ll know what a complex, unique, mystical and demanding story it is, deserving of an adaptation that takes themes, character and pacing seriously. If you’ve seen the 2007 Golden Compass film you will know just how monumentally, how embarrassingly they failed at bringing this very special piece of storytelling to life and doing the source material justice. Second times the charm though, I’m happy to report that HBO’s long form crack at it is a gorgeously dense, adequately mature and living, breathing, convincingly built model of Pullman’s literary work.

Logan’s Dafne Keen is Lyra Belacqua, a mysterious child adopted by a collective scholarship in an alternate dimension where every human being has a ‘daemon,’ literal pieces of their soul manifested as animals in the physical realm, lifelong companions tethered by an intangible yet essential bond. Lyra is periodically watched over by her shrewdly ambitious uncle Lord Asriel (James McAvoy understands this guy far better than Daniel Craig did), but his interests ultimately lie north in the arctic where he researches elusive metaphysical phenomena deemed ‘heresy’ by the Majesterium, a fascist, omnipresent religious sect that makes the churches of our world seem like kindergarten playtime in comparison. Anyways, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon are swept up in an epic quest northbound to discover where the missing children of the roaming Gyptian clans have gone, find answers to the secret of her own identity and even possibly unlock portals to other worlds, including our own.

In a way the film never stood a chance next to this simply by default; one book is just going to breathe better in eight hour length episodes rather than one two hour movie no matter how you spin it. However, where this truly eclipses the past effort is its attention to detail and proper care in bringing several complicated and difficult relationships to life, as well as an ever present and necessary tone of darkness. Lyra and the power mad Marissa Coulter (Ruth Wilson is terrifyingly conflicted) are such an important, vital dynamic to this story and both actresses soar in their scenes together. McAvoy finds the callous, tunnel vision mentality to Asriel nicely, this guy is no hero or proper father figure, just a desperate explorer hellbent on that horizon no matter the personal cost. James Cosmo gives a heartbreaking, Emmy worthy turn as Farder Coram, the Gyptian elder who once shared a great love with Northern Witch Serefina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas). The only somewhat weak link is Lin Manuel Miranda as gunslinging aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who is a bit less grizzled than the character demands (Sam Elliott played him far better in the film) and could use a brush up in the acting department, but he still makes an impression. There are armoured bears, battles on the ice, northern lights, trips into our world through secured doorways, voyages far into the arctic circle and more, but what makes this so successful is the human element, and the willingness to tackle themes that some young adult adaptations just don’t seem to want to address. Lyra struggles with trust, understanding the world and dealing with the adults in her life, two of which cause her great pain and suffering when they should be the two most supportive and loving ones. It’s a difficult, often harrowing and tragic journey for a child to make, but one worth taking for how seriously the show runners wish to take it. Bring on season 2.

-Nate Hill