[15 March 2012]
When a network opts for a mid-evening series that’s not sitcom, reality series or family-friendly crime show, it should be a moment for celebration. When the network backs that choice with a first-rate director (Steve Shill), a talented international cast, and a production budget whose generosity glints from almost every frame, the critical equivalent of dancing in the streets should be a foregone conclusion.
ABC’s Missing premieres 15 March with just such a pedigree, as well as a bona fide screen star, Ashley Judd. But, despite pacy editing, superb action choreography, and location shooting across Europe, the whole turns out to be yet another re-run of that updated Western, 24, which pits an arrogant outlaw protagonist against friend and foe alike.
This time the hero is Judd’s Becca Winstone, a suburban flower shop owner who actually dislikes Europe. Her husband Paul (a barely glimpsed Sean Bean) died there in a car bombing. Now, a few weeks after he arrived in Rome as a summer student, her son Michael (Nick Eversman) has disappeared. After a few cursory scenes as an apparently ordinary Mom-on-a-mission tracking down the location of her son’s last photo, her first, and very brutal, encounter with opposition triggers the revelation that she and her husband were once top CIA agents. She returns to her life of violence for this one last mission. It’s one cliché of many here, part of the show’s comic-book logic, which includes as well a cloying sanctification of a very American Motherhood.
The show quickly piles absurdity upon absurdity. After 12 years out of the business, Becca switches instantly into assassin mode, leaving a trail of dead and wounded bodies across Italy and France, where just a tiny hint of rustiness might have aided credibility. Apparently carrying no more than a pair of sunglasses and someone else’s gun, she looks chic and well-groomed in every scene, whether she has just dragged herself from the Seine after being shot, or roughed up a deadly Italian intelligence agent. Although she uses CCTV footage to track her son, Becca mysteriously evades the automatic 24/7 surveillance of the modern city, even while openly walking busy streets, entering foreign intelligence agency HQs or being arrested.
It’s just as well she’s untouchable, though, for the script rarely lets her, or anyone else in the show, reach a smart decision. When Becca learns that a private jet leaving Le Bourget, the busy business airport just outside Paris, may be taking her son out of the country, she hurtles headlong to the tarmac. She never thinks of asking her CIA liaison in Paris, Dax (Cliff Curtis reprising Joan Allen’s thankless one-step-behind role in the Bourne movies), to ask airport authorities to delay the plane’s departure, or to gain sight of the flight plan or to organize a welcome party at the flight’s destination. Instead, Dax and his assistant barrel out to Le Bourget in a attempt to stop the plane taking off by saying, “Don’t go” very loudly, in English.
As Becca even tries to run the plan down on foot, the show’s writers and producers clearly subscribe to the CIA’s alternative moniker, Clowns in Action. If this might go over in a feature film, where disbelief need only be suspended for two hours or so, here, in a series scheduled for 10 parts, the burden of credulity already seems a crushing weight.
At the center of this illogic, Winstone’s dueling personae—crack agent and sacred soccer Mom—illuminate a more general paucity of imagination in crafting contemporary women characters. She oscillates between behaving exactly like a man in drag and justifying her every heartless action with her sacrifice of her career as a CIA agent to nurture her son. Sadly, the series perpetuates in an extreme form the canard that women cannot balance avocation, in Becca’s case espionage and maternity.
For her, motherhood trumps everything—law, morality, friendship, loyalty, the sanctity of others’ lives. She embodies so rampant a primal urge to protect her son that she’s willing to let anyone die so she can save her child. The loyal asset Hard Drive (Lothaire Bluteau) she’s protected for more than a decade? Throw him to the wolves. Former lover Giancarlo (Adriano Gainnini), who cherishes her with a tender nostalgia? Let him jeopardize his career and life, to boot.
That Becca Winstone becomes so quickly so annoying, with her wounded wails of “It’s my son” whenever she is thwarted, testifies to Judd’s skill. But she can’t infuse intelligence into this act first, think (much) later caricature, who never reports the kidnapping of her son to the police, never alerts Interpol or America’s embassies abroad, and never makes a simple phone call when she can jump on a motorbike, rock a cool safety helmet, and roar down a suspiciously empty road.
All this action helps to create a thread of a paranoid US imperialism that runs through the series. That someone with Becca’s apparently superb linguistic skills, more than once immersed in another culture as a professional intelligence agent, would behave as a private citizen with such disregard for national sovereignty and international law reflects what many Europeans see as America’s overweening sense of entitlement to do what it likes, when it likes, and where it likes.
In the first two episodes of Missing, she’s able to run amok in the an Italy and France seemingly bereft of law enforcement, where CIA agents pack heat in public and have free rein to search and destroy. The series promises that each episode will occur in a different city, as if Europe were a quaint theme park, designed solely for Americans to prove, to themselves and the world, that only they can protect the innocent. Such a fable is downright dangerous as a primer for the lives we lead in a global society.