TIME Television

Suffer the Children: Saying “No Thanks” to TV’s Child-in-Peril Stories

The Missing 2014
James Nesbitt, Oliver Hunt, and Frances O'Connor in The Missing. Liam Daniel

There's nothing wrong with a good story portraying terrible things. But there's no obligation to watch it over and over, either.

Early in the first episode of the Starz miniseries The Missing (premieres Nov. 15), the worst happens, as it does so often on TV these days.

Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) are on holiday in a rural French town in 2006 when their five-year-old son, Oliver (Oliver Hunt), disappears in a crowd. He is, apparently, abducted; as the story flashes forward to 2014, they have never seen him again.

In between, they’ve lived eight years of agony. After the investigation goes cold, they’re left to torment themselves, wondering if Oliver is dead, and if so how, and if not–what might their baby have gone through for eight years, what might he be going through now? It’s hard to say which would be the mercy, but in their present, mercy is a remote concept.

I’ve watched the five episodes that Starz sent me of The Missing (there will be eight in total), and it’s very good, a swift-moving crime thriller that also takes the time to measure the effects of the crime on Tony and Emily’s marriage, their state of mind, and the lives of the French townspeople who were drawn into the investigation and may be again. Tony, who’s become a walking open wound, aching and refusing comfort, has returned to France, chasing another in a series of leads he’s been obsessively pursuing for eight years–only this one seems to pan out.

As he joins with Julien, the now-retired investigator on the original case (Tchéky Karyo), they begin to unravel a timeline and a chain of secrets, drawing closer, but to what, exactly? As the revelations mount, you itch for an answer, and dread it. We’ve trod this grim ground in a lot of British and European crime series lately, but The Missing is adept at showing the wear on the Hugheses and the disorienting nightmare of searching for a lost child in a foreign country. The Missing isn’t great, entirely original, or indispensible, but–I want to be clear and fair here–it’s very good.

And yet. Would I have watched it if it weren’t my job? Hell no.

This is not The Missing‘s fault so much as it is mine. We all have our not-for-me markers with fiction: mine is kids in peril. It’s not that I can’t appreciate, even enjoy a series based on it; Broadchurch, about the aftermath of a child’s murder, was one of the best things I saw on TV last year. But when I’m off the TV-critic clock, these shows need to clear a much higher bar for me. (Which is why I didn’t continue with Broadchurch‘s perfectly decent adaption Gracepoint; once was enough.)

It’s easy to say this and sound sanctimonious. But this isn’t a moral judgment. My squeamishness doesn’t make me a more sensitive soul or a kinder person or a better parent than anyone else. And though I hate shows that use the child-in-peril for easy dramatic stakes, this isn’t a moral judgment on The Missing. This show isn’t cheaply exploitative; just the opposite, it’s highly conscious of what losing a child does to a parent, how it never stops doing damage, even after years. The Missing is well aware of the consequences of its central crime, which is the right thing for the story but all the tougher to take.

In the grand scheme, TV is more authentic, not to mention compelling, when you know that there’s no artificial safety net around topics like endangering children. But Jesus–lately, TV has practically replaced the safety net with a trap door. For a bad crime show, killing or harming a kid can be a lazy way to show that you’re willing to “go there.” But even very good series are now going there, over and over and over.

Kids were collateral damage in Breaking Bad. True Detective led to a ghastly story of ritual child abuse, and it was haunted by the long-ago death of Rust Cohle’s toddler daughter. In Netflix’s excellent British import Happy Valley, the protagonist, who has never recovered from the rape and suicide of her daughter, investigates a grim case that puts other people’s children in mortal danger. In Showtime’s The Affair, not only is Ruth Wilson’s Alison mourning her child, who drowned as a toddler, but in the pilot Dominic West’s Noah witnesses his son’s (simulated) suicide and his daughter’s near-death by choking (which we see twice). Game of Thrones chucked a child out a window in its first episode. The Walking Dead–if you don’t know, don’t ask.

Harming children in a story is never a gentle nudge. It pushes an audience to extreme reactions. The death of a child upends a sense of natural order, it makes the world feel broken. The rage and helplessness it causes makes you want to find someone to blame–the creators who protray the violence, the audiences who enjoy the show. I could probably get more attention for this essay, and plenty of likes, if I gave it one of those finger-wagging headlines that social media loves: “Hey TV, Stop Killing Kids!” or “Sorry, Fans, the Death of a Child is Not Entertainment.”

TV doesn’t owe me that, though. It’s one of fiction’s jobs to face the worst of experience, not to leave an unexplained hole in place of terrible crimes, illnesses and accidents that–would that it were otherwise–do happen. Stories that handle the material with respect and awareness of its lasting consequence do a service; beyond the general role of art to reflect human experience, they provide a kind of emotional disaster preparedness.

But it’s also not anyone’s job as a viewer, or as a human, to face the worst in fiction, much less repeatedly. Again, I get why someone might make this argument. Like real-life violence–see the debate over watching terrorist beheading videos–the outrage that a fictional atrocity provokes makes people want to react morally one way or another. Either it must be a violation to portray this thing, and to watch it; or it must be an obligation, a mark of bravery, to bear witness. The counter-moralizing response to the one I talked about above is: you owe it to others–to real people who suffer and die–to confront this stuff. If you avoid certain kinds of dark material, you’re avoiding life, you’re in denial, you’re a wimp.

I have to side with the wimps here. Earlier this year, after watching a run of particularly unsettling stuff–maybe murders, maybe rapes, who can keep track now–I tweeted, “I watch a lot of disturbing TV. But I totally get ‘I’m tired of [unpleasant thing TK]. TV’s not a chili-pepper-eating contest.” There is no shame in saying: you know what, tonight I think I’ll just have the ice cream.

As for The Missing: if you’re up for an emotionally raw crime story that never lets its thrills hide its emotional repercussions, I can recommend it. And I hope you’re satisfied with the ending, which I will probably not stick around for. Every once in a while, I have to decide that my own nightmares are enough without borrowing someone else’s.

TIME Television

Is TV Drama Finally Getting Out of Its Murder Rut?

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Olivia Williams and John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan Greg Peters / WGN

Manhattan, Masters of Sex and several upcoming shows are finding drama in subjects other than scowling tough guys stabbing people.

Manhattan, premiering Sunday night on WGN America, is about a point in history when the balance of power in war tilted from brawn to brains. In 1943, millions of soldiers were fighting and dying around the world, fighting on ships and in the air and in close combat in a global war. Yet the outcome of WWII–and the global dynamic for decades to come–would be determined largely by scientists holed up in a secret government-run community in Los Alamos, N.M., racing to develop the atomic bomb.

WGN’s second new drama after the goofy spookshow Salem, Manhattan is a big improvement for the network–not an instant game-changer like Mad Men for AMC, but promising enough to make it worth finding out what channel WGN is on in your cable lineup. (Brooklyn Time Warner Cable customers, I just found it myself–it’s channel 126!)

Creator Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) have made a mature, thoughtful drama that explores how the pressure of the A-bomb race combines with military and professional politics to create workplace drama with stakes that are (literally) explosive. John Benjamin Hickey–whom you may know as The Good Wife‘s ChumHum chief–is especially striking as Frank Winter, a head researcher driven not just by patriotic urgency but fierce personal pride. (The Manhattan Project scientists were racing not just Hitler but other U.S. atomic scientists, competing with them for resources and glory.) The first two episodes build slowly, but there’s the stuff of a compelling drama about scientists and their families, exiled to what amounts to the nation’s most remote, highest-stress research campus. (“Harvard with sand,” one character jokes.)

But what’s most interesting about Manhattan at the get-go is how it’s another example of how, in TV as in WWII, brains may be starting to supersede brawn, at least a little. That is: several series this summer and fall are investing in the radical idea that there can be drama in things other than people getting horribly killed.

The last season of The Good Wife featured a running gag about a parodically grim cable drama that Alicia Florrick watched in which brooding cops did terrible things and gave even more terrible speeches about the nature of evil. (It was, basically, Low Winter Sun, veiled with Saran Wrap.) The joke was maybe a little self-serving–a (justified) complaint that lesser dramas got more credit and praise than the fantastic Good Wife because they were on cable and relentlessly bleak and violent. But it also pointed out the fact that in the Breaking Bad / Game of Thrones / Walking Dead era, it had become almost a requirement that serious new TV dramas had to be physically brutal, that their dramatic stakes had to be pointy.

The first half of 2014 brought more crime-and-violence-driven shows willing to take up Heisenberg’s black hat. And it was fine: True Detective gave us a murder case as Southern Gothic existentialism class, Fargo kept winter coming with its distinctive dark comedy. But it didn’t do much to change the impression that, these days, all TV drama flows out of the barrel of a gun.

Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Kerry Bishe as Donna Clark - Halt and Catch Fire _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe in Halt and Catch Fire. / AMC

But this summer and fall, new (and relatively new) dramas are striving to give Alicia some alternative viewing choices. Besides Manhattan, Showtime’s Masters of Sex–currently better than ever in its second season–draws its dramatic thrust (ahem) not just from eroticism but from the emotional and intellectual charge of scientific discovery: it’s about how research gives its characters’ lives purpose, and how their findings about sexuality and its myths have the potential to change the way their patients live. HBO’s The Leftovers deals with a global cataclysm’s emotional toll, not its body count. Debuting in August, Cinemax’s The Knick (from director Steven Soderbergh) explores fledgling surgical science in the New York City of 1900; Showtime’s The Affair–the best drama pilot I’ve yet seen for fall–is about the aftermath of infidelity. (And that’s not even considering channels like ABC Family, which has a number of entries in the not-murdering-people genre.)

I’ve loved a lot of bloody, brutal shows, but you get tired of so much red meat. Which is one reason why I’ve stuck with AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, about the computer business in the early 1980s, for all its imperfections. The show has been knocked as a kludgy Mad Men clone, and with some reason: Lee Pace’s angsty Don Draper-esque man of mystery, is maybe the show’s fifth most interesting character. But the ensemble surrounding him are people you don’t see every day: in particular, the complicated marriage between programmers Donna (the terrific Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is a nuanced exploration of entrepreneurial dreams smashing into reality. It’s become a good show–not nearly a great one, but one that’s refreshing for showing that the simple drive to create a thing of your own can power a story.

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Dominic West and Ruth Wilson in The Affair. Craig Blankenhorn / Showtime

It’s not as if these shows have taken a vow of pacifism. There’s a dramatic act of violence in the early episodes of Manhattan (and in a larger sense, of course, the show is about the eventual killing of far more people than Walter White ever took out). The Knick is extremely gory, but it’s medical gore, in a story about the bloody trial and error of an emerging science. The Leftovers incidents of violence are sparing, but they’re shocking. WeTV’s The Divide, a social-minded death-penalty drama, is rooted in a murder, albeit one dealt with as past history. Starz’s time-traveling Outlander, premiering in August, involves some hearty Scottish violence, but it’s secondary to the sci-fi-romance, culture-clash storyline.

It may be that TV audiences don’t want an alternative to violent franchises at all: see the healthy ratings for Fargo and The Strain. But if you’ve been hoping that TV drama’s subject matter could become as diverse as it’s become ambitious, the latter half of this year is looking promising. Big murder and mayhem premises will never stop being the stuff of many, many dramas. But as the Manhattan Project taught us, it’s also possible to harness incredible power from teensy, tiny things.

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