A dad walks into a bar, his son waddling along by his side. The football’s on, the bar is busy, but the boy is nuzzled against his father’s knee, their hands locked. A goal goes in, the room erupts, the dad glances to the television screen.
The next moment his son is gone.
This is the key scene from the opening episode of new BBC1 drama The Missing, and it comes like a prizefighter punch to the gut.
It’s the same gagging grief we felt watching Broadchurch, when Beth (Jodie Whittaker) stumbles onto a Dorset beach and sees a pair of trainers nudging out from beneath a police blanket.
These stinging revelations are hard to get right. The stories are too familiar, too bleakly ordinary to be turned into explosive drama.
Broadchurch knew better than to deal in TV histrionics: the dreadful domesticity was enough. On the basis of episode one, The Missing has learned the same lesson.
James Nesbitt plays Tony, a father crumpled under the weight of his own anguish. After letting go of his boy’s hand for a mere second in a bar full of cheering French football fans, he tears around the town of Chalons Du Bois looking for his lost son.
The drama then flips back to the present-day, but Nesbitt’s character Tony is still stumbling alone through a soggy foreign square, unable to accept that his dear Olly is lost for good. His wife Emily (Frances O’Connor) is back in England, trapped in her own isolating hell.
So close to the true-life tragedy of the McCanns, The Missing by all rights should feel mawkish, exploitative. It doesn’t. The grief is sparse, real, and – just like Broadchurch’s fractured seaside town – all too familiar.
There’s more to come from The Missing, eight parts in total (just like Broadchurch). The thriller elements, the dramatic “coincidences” that turbo-charge the plot, will always threaten to overwhelm the story.
But after staring into Nesbitt’s grief-smeared eyes for an hour, it’s hard to see this haunting thriller losing its emotional core.
When a toddler waddles off in a foreign hypermarket, two minutes later they are usually back by their parent’s side. No damage, no drama.
Except that’s not true. The gut-wrenching horror of those two minutes stays with you, wriggling around like a tape-worm.
The Missing imagines what happens when those two minutes stretch into a lifetime. When there’s no innocent child’s tug on the trouser leg; just a hollow absence, and a threadbare toy fox.