It’s been more than a year since FOX debuted “The Chicago Code,” which was the most recent show in an unfortunate but amusing tradition of shows promoted relentlessly with the same shouted line in every promo. Before Jennifer Beals was asked, incredulously, “You think you can change how things get done IN CHICAGO?!?!,” Ron Silver tried to warn his daughter in “Skin” that “His father is THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY!,” while the first “House” promos had House complaining to Cuddy, “You’re risking A PATIENT’S LIFE!” Many of these shows have been good, but it’s just too easy to remember the one loud quote that the promo department drilled into our brains.
There weren’t any fall shows with ad campaigns that were so quotable, so I’m glad that ABC is finally picking up the mantle with “Missing,” the new action drama (debuting Thursday night at 8 p.m.) that’s summed up in every commercial by Ashley Judd barking out the line, “I am not CIA! I am A MOTHER! LOOKING FOR HER SON!”
It may, in fact, be the most perfect of all the shouted, ubiquitous taglines. It tells you exactly what the show is about in terms of story (she’s looking for her son!), backstory (she’s not CIA anymore!) and how it fits into ABC’s brand of targeting upscale women (she’s a mother!). It also tells you that this show will be very much like the kinds of films that Judd headlined shortly before and after the turn of the century, where she was a sweet-looking woman forced by dire circumstances to get very tough (usually with assistance from a grizzled veteran like Morgan Freeman or Tommy Lee Jones) and kick a little butt. In comparison, the “House” promo line was actually much more tongue-in-cheek in context than it seemed in the promo, and people stopped shouting at Jennifer Beals after a few episodes.
So what we have here is your basic Ashley Judd thriller grafted onto the plot of “Taken”(*). It’s not deep, but it offers exactly what it promises: action, lots of fierce emoting by Judd, and frequent reminders that while Ashley Judd is an ex-spy looking for her son across various beautiful European landmarks, she’s also a mother whom women 18-49 who enjoy “Modern Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy” might enjoy having coffee with.
(*) And now I’m wondering what other Liam Neeson films Judd can appropriate as star vehicles. Who wouldn’t want to watch Ashley Judd punch a wolf, catalog America’s sexual tendencies or teach Jodie Foster how to speak English?
Judd plays Becca Winstone, former super spy extraordinaire whose husband Paul (Sean Bean) died in a car bombing in Vienna 10 years ago.(**) Becca retired to raise son Michael (Nick Eversman) on her own, and is set on edge when Michael enrolls in an architecture program in Rome. No good can come of a man in her life going to Europe, Becca assumes, and is proven right when Michael goes, well, missing.
(**) On the one hand, characters played by Sean Bean die so frequently that there’s a YouTube video featuring his character dying (always in gruesome fashion) in 21 different movies and TV shows, so Paul’s death less than five minutes into the pilot feels almost inevitable. On the other, Bean is in the regular cast and this seems awfully early for even a Sean Bean character to blow up real good. The producers swore at press tour that we’d only see Paul in flashbacks, but my initial reaction to the death was that this might be a series where we get to see Sean Bean die twice.
Becca flies to Italy herself to investigate, and is soon getting into kung fu fights, scooter chases, gunfights and even a hi-speed pursuit by yacht, across Rome, France, Croatia and more. (“Missing” was filmed throughout Europe, but not always in the exact place Becca is supposed to be. You’ll from time to time see some obvious green screen work, particularly when she’s supposed to be standing in front of a famous landmark where filming might be inconvenient.)
Though the plot’s lifted from “Taken,” “Missing” is working with a TV budget, schedule and standards, which means the action scenes tend to be quicker, and less brutal. Becca kills people, but not in ways that are necessarily going to trick you into thinking it’s time for Judd to sign an MMA contract.
Still, she has plenty of screen presence – there’s a reason she was considered a legitimate movie star for a decade or so – and is gung-ho for any opportunity to cry, scream, or otherwise show just how determined she is to find her son, dammit. She’s also ably backed by a supporting cast that includes Cliff Curtis as a local CIA station chief who gets sucked into Becca’s search, Keith Carradine as Becca’s retired mentor and Adriano Giannini as an Interpol agent with whom she shares a past.
“Missing” was created by Gregory Poirier, who wrote “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” It’s meat and potatoes action and suspense – not inventive or inspiring, but executed well enough to work. Because Becca obviously can’t find Michael for a while, the show gives her the kind of episodic missions that used to keep Jack Bauer occupied in the middle of a season, where she has to do favors for people in exchange for getting another piece to the puzzle. The episodic stuff isn’t always elegant, but it sets up the fights and the crying and the screaming, and that’s really all that’s required.
The only places the show really stumbles is when it tries to push Becca’s relatability too hard, particularly in scenes involving her friend Mary (Aunjanue Ellis), who doesn’t know she used to be a spy. “Alias” (a much more ambitious series overall, if not always a coherent one) used to drag with similar scenes involving Sydney Bristow’s civilian friends; eventually, the writers recognized no one was going to watch a spy show to watch the heroine drink coffee and talk about relationships, and they replaced one of her friends with an evil doppleganger and brought the other one into the spy fold. “Missing” is only going to be on for 10 episodes this year (a concession to Judd, and also to the new reality that not every show has 22 episodes worth of story per season), so that kind of course correction may not turn up until a second season. In the meantime, the show’s third episode is repeatedly forehead-smacking in how it tries to insert Mary’s marital drama (and Becca’s desire to be a supportive friend, even while she’s searching for her son, dammit) into the middle of the action.
Having a ubiquitous, very loud tagline doesn’t guarantee success. Sure, “House” is about to wrap up an 8-season run, but “Skin” was canceled after three episodes of his father being the district attorney, and Jennifer Beals only mildly changed how things got done in Chicago before FOX declined to renew “Chicago Code.” “Missing” could signal a huge new second act in Ashley Judd’s career, or it could just inspire a bunch of snarky tweets during March Madness (which debuts the same day this year as “Missing”) about how she’s not an actress; she is A KENTUCKY FAN! LOOKING FOR A CHAMPIONSHIP!
But if you view it as, say, a USA show with less humor but much higher production values, with attractive people having adventures you can enjoy while doing the laundry or sorting through junk mail, it’ll do the job for now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org