• Missing children, dead children, a family with a past, and a seductive serial killer. Introducing the mystery miniserial. (File)Source: File
Shows like The Missing, Broadchurch and Top of the Lake can make for arduous (in a good way) viewing – so why do we put ourselves through it?
Jeremy Cassar

11 Jan 2016 - 12:09 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2016 - 1:02 PM

We’re not sure if you’ve noticed, but recent televisual times have seen the formation of a new subgenre to a subgenre to a subgenre. Loosely rooted in Nordic-Noir —and more specifically in Forbrydelson, the cult Danish ‘ongoing miniseries’ remade for philistines into AMC’s The Killing — this sub-sub-sub-genre’s specifics aren’t easily articulated. A mutation of case-of-the-week procedural, Agatha Christie novel, prestige cable drama, and tele-miniseries, these slow, atmospheric offerings stretch a single mystery over the course of a single or multiple seasons; and each episode contributes a puzzle-piece to the complete picture, to varying degrees of success.

In other words: they know exactly what you want and spend an inordinate amount of time and effort into everything but letting you have it, like the vindictive manager of a Methadone clinic.

One such show, The Missing, is coming to SBS in 2016. This Frances O’Conner-lead drama about the parents of a missing boy, joins the already airing The Fall, and sits comfortably alongside Forbrydelson and The Killing as well as the UK’s Broadchurch, New Zealand’s Top Of The Lake, and Netflix’s Bloodline. So before we let another manipulative ‘Mystery Miniserial (?!?)’ strap us to the viewing-chair, lets try to understand why the hell we’ll almost definitely sit there and take it.    


We love being hypnotised by the atmosphere

While many eyes droop closed over the course of these arguably morbid and monotonous productions, others slam open and remain transfixed from the first ominous rumble to the final episode’s frame. This second camp of couch-spuds willingly spends time under the dank overpasses of The Killing’s Seattle or along the bleak beaches of Broadchurch’s Broadchurch. They’ll sit through repeated shots of character’s railing over looming tragedy set to unsettling ambience, and long-stretches of episode set in the darkest part of the night. They’ll do all these things and more, knowingly de-calibrating their dopamine receptors just to MAYBE find out what on earth Ben Mendelsohn did to make Coach Kyle Chandler so bloody unlikeable.


We love feeling sick from (relentless) dread

In what is arguably the most successful of these shows, Top Of The Lake stretched out the mystery just enough without sacrificing credibility, and unlike The Killing and Broadchurch, lets us form an attachment to the child before they’re pronounced missing.  From the opening scene of Jane Campion’s debut seven-part season, she attaches a C-clamp to the pit of our stomachs and turns it and turns it and turns it. All of these shows drift along an undercurrent of tragedy, of impending doom, playing right into our masochistic desires to watch accidents play out in slow motion.


We love a show that plays hard to get

One of the biggest draw-cards of the mystery miniserial is also its biggest foil – the slow, incremental journey towards a much-anticipated reveal.  When it works, audiences are left at each cliffhanger either reaching for the ‘next episode’ button, or —if made to wait— with the fleeting desire to enter ‘How to Tie A Successful Noose’ into YouTube’s search bar.

As is expected of any mystery or procedural, creators rely on red herrings to keep audiences upon the rack. A feature film like L.A. Confidential or The Usual Suspects lead us to multiple dead ends before we learn of the truth, but it all rolls along with such pace that if we do notice we’re being played it’s not until after the fact. When stretched over hours and hours of television, usually viewed in separate parts, we can only fall for misdirection a few times before recognising the pattern.

Broadchurch manages to make this work, as the detectives begin to doubt these red herrings around the same time as the audience, and the mystery is wrapped up by the end of the first season (Season 2 was almost a different show – focusing on the case’s court proceedings). Whereas in The Killing, the case is drawn out over two seasons, and by the mystery’s end we’ve watched two detectives believe that each suspect is their man, over and over again. Instead of remaining invested in the pursuit of truth, we lose respect for the show’s credibility and deal with that fact by yelling insults at the screen as if it’ll make the characters act like people again.   


We love seeing women prominently featured

With the exception of Bloodline, the shows mentioned above have revealed to the world that women are living, breathing primates with evolved behaviors and complex senses of self. Female characters don’t merely take center stage, but are shaded with darker colours and propelled by (relatable and detestable) contradictions – something that male protagonists have been getting away with since before Tony Soprano walked into that consult room.

The Fall’s Gillian Anderson is a man-ising, emotionally barricaded detective; The Killing’s Michelle Enos is work-obsessed to the point of ongoing familial neglect; and Top of the Lake’s Elizabeth Moss is another career-focused detective, but brimming with a stifled pain and rage that’s inarguably heartbreaking.

However, it’s Forbydelson’s Detective Inspector Sarah Lund, played by the ridiculously gifted Sofie Gråbøl, who was written and interpreted with such dimension that she was almost held back by the constraints of the genre. If there was ever a female protagonist that I’d welcome into any show, it’s Sarah Lund, even in a Three’s Company-style sitcom where her world-weary detective is forced to flat-share with inconsiderate ghosts of her past.


Get your bleak on

The Missing airs on SBS in 2016. Top of the Lake season two, Bloodline season two and Broadchurch season three are on the horizon.  Whether you can’t handle the gloom and doom or feel that once these shows conclude, the sub-sub-genre will run out of steam as quickly as it gathered — this small corner of the small-screen’s landscape is a place where showrunners experiment with evolving forms of storytelling, female showrunners get their overdue opportunity, and female characters get their overdue representation.

Whether shows like 2 Broke Girls can boast the same, is no mystery.


Watch The Missing on Wednesdays at 9:30pm (AEDT) on SBS.