Late in the spring of 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing, never making it back to his San Antonio home after a basketball game. Three years later, he was returned to his mother from Spain a decade older, with a French accent and brown eyes instead of blue. The new Nicky was serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin, who had posed as other disappeared children in his native Europe. “I know I can be cruel, but I don’t want to become a monster,” Bourdin has said, despite exploiting one of the most painful tragedies that can befall a family. While not completely unprecedented, the con man’s crime was so rare that the FBI had likely never dealt with an impersonation of a missing child before — and a pretty unconvincing one at that. (The real Barclay was never found.)
The bandwagon approach to TV programming has meant that Bourdin’s unusual deception — chronicled in the 2012 documentary The Imposter — has given way to other changeling tales. Last year’s The Family (ABC), starring Joan Allen and Alison Pill, explored how a Maine clan was changed by the abduction of its youngest child — and why one of them chooses to pass off a cooperative stranger as the lost boy 10 years later. Season 2 of the anthology mystery-drama The Missing (Starz), now available in full, also begins with doubt that the ill young woman who wanders out of the snowy woods really is Alice Webster, who vanished 11 years ago. Little Alice and Returned Alice (Abigail Hardingham) share a stick-and-poke spider-web tattoo and big doll eyes. She calls her little brother (Jake Davies) by his elementary-school nickname. Their father (David Morrissey), a British army officer stationed in Germany, where this season is set, is overjoyed that his daughter is back, though the rapes she endured make him sick. But their mother (Keeley Hawes) — and the retired French detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who investigated another child’s disappearance in Season 1 — become convinced that the young woman is a fraud, but that she may lead them to the real Alice.
Is Fake Alice, like Bourdin, a monster? The Missing ultimately doesn’t dive very deeply into the ethical intricacies of Fake Alice’s deceit, nor into the emotional turmoil that the Webster family experiences when they become divided over whether to believe the young woman in their house or not. Rather than explore the tsunami of grief and confusion and anger that Fake Alice incites, the series plays an eight-hour game of jigsaw puzzle with its audience. The Websters’ ordeal is splintered and scrambled into three different timelines and includes a continent-spanning cast that involves animal masks, roller coasters, a butcher and his wife, a trans sex worker, an Alzheimer’s patient, multiple pregnancies, and ISIS. Writers Harry and Jack Williams essentially scatter a million little puzzle pieces in front of their audience, then slowly reveal how those shards click into place with the others. The Missing’s first season irritatingly utilized the same format to backtrack on every bit of investigative progress. Season 2 is much more generous with its resolutions and their attendant satisfactions. And yet, it’s drama at a distance, a show that cares more about looking clever than in engaging with the large-scale emotional catastrophes at hand.
Several twists, especially in the earlier episodes, are effective enough to make us reconsider the dimensions of what we’re looking at. But the latter half of the season feels more like the Williams brothers explaining away preposterousness rather than telling a cohesive and compelling story. Sexual violence and war crimes are reduced to a backdrop as plot pieces pop into place. A skepticism toward institutions, both international and domestic, never gets specific enough to become hard-hitting criticism. I’d rather watch a bricklayer at his job; at least he won’t pretend there’s a larger moral point to his work.