I’d like to think the producers of the new TV show Missing (ABC), with Ashley Judd as a retired CIA agent tracking down her abducted son, didn’t realize what they were doing. I’ve watched the first two episodes; the show airs on Thursday at 8:00 PM (EDT/PDT), and since I’m typically writing for deadline then, I keep some TV going in the background. Ashley Judd, a missing son, international intrigue – how bad could it be, right?
And some aspects of it aren’t bad at all. Judd runs into an acquaintance from her espionage days in each episode, and so far it’s been foreign guys with charming accents. French Canadian Lothaire Bluteau (Black Robe, The Tudors) in the most recent episode was a superb choice. (The Judd character – Rebecca Winstone – is widowed, by the way. Her husband, Sean Bean, was also in The Business, and was assassinated in an airport years ago. Too bad.) The outstanding Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida (Clear and Present Danger, Desperado) is the director of French intelligence. And then there’s the scenery. There’s a lot to enjoy.
But I’m not sure how long I can stick with it. Ashley Judd getting beat up and shot all the time is one thing. I did see Salt (Angelina Jolie), on an Encore movie channel not too long ago; I can be hip. But what’s with this 18-year-old son who’s, like, twice Mom’s size and completely helpless?
Michael Winstone is the son’s name. He’s a prospective architecture student who went to Rome in the first episode to pursue his studies. I can certainly buy that he has never been a spy or received any training; that he was abducted; and even that he’s being moved around Europe to tantalize his desperate mother, the former CIA agent with a Past. (Hey, we’ve got to have a story, after all.)
But at the end of the second episode, Mom rushes to the French airport where Michael is being bundled onto a private jet, and, catching sight of him as she pulls up in a car, leaps out and starts running onto the tarmac. She runs in that purposeful, symmetrical, hard-striding manner that moviegoers now expect from the stars of spy thrillers. Her son is being herded resistless toward the plane by a phalanx of armed thugs, and as she shouts at him, he howls back, “Mom! Help me! Mom! Help me!!!!”
The plane begins to taxi, Mom loses ground against it, and finally she has to collapse in agony on the tarmac. As a loving mother, she has been unable to reach the armed abductors of her shrieking, strapping, grown-up son, to wreak mayhem on them and rescue her baby.
I don’t know, maybe you have to have spent a military career working with 18-year-old men to realize that, however lacking in wisdom and experience they may be, they are smart and brave as well as strong and fast. (They have, for another 10 years or so, the greatest potential of any human demographic to be the latter.) In a perilous situation with lots of gunmen in it, they are going to feel instinctively protective of their mothers. They’re not going to shriek wildly at them for help. A young man in this particular situation is more likely to yell, “Get out of here, Mom!”
Eighteen is the age of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines entering America’s armed forces. Eighteen-year-olds go into combat. Eighteen-year-olds with the proper training take on the responsibilities of adults. And throughout the ages of mankind, 18-year-olds have watched over their mothers, up to and including taking up arms and defending their mothers at peril to their lives.
Story narratives do often ask us to suspend disbelief about one thing or another. But it seems to me to be sloppy story-writing, to ask us to buy into an 18-year-old behaving like a helpless 6-year-old in a dangerous situation involving his mother. That’s just icky, and audiences won’t stay with it for very long. If Junior is a wimp, then for the story’s sake, he needs to grow out of it.
This hole in the plot could have been salvaged pretty simply, by amending the “Mom! Help me!” scene at the airport to let Junior show some spunk (even though he clearly couldn’t have made an escape). It would be a better show, and we’d care more. Mom can be a very capable and talented former CIA agent without her son being infantilized to advance the story. You could make a very good story out of reuniting mother and son if you let the Michael Winstone character be an actual young man. The plot takes care of whether his abductors would kill him for showing spunk; they won’t. As a series denouement, Mom and Michael fighting their way together out of the captors’ clutches could be a great episode.
But Missing is the wrong genre for Mommy Bathos. And if Michael remains an inert, somewhat pathetic cardboard cut-out of a character, I suspect that that potentially great episode is one viewers won’t stick around for.