After two episodes, ABC's new action series "Missing," starring Ashley Judd and Cliff Curtis, is getting on my nerves something awful. The story follows ex-CIA agent Becca Winstone (Judd) whose teenage son Michael (Nick Everstone) has been kidnapped, prompting her to go to Europe and become a one-woman army, bent on finding and recovering him. With extremely high production values, including a lot of on-location shooting in picturesque European cities, "Missing" often looks feature quality and has more fancy action sequences than similar network programs. It ought to be a great weekly dose of fun and excitement for action fans, right?
Oh, if only. I remember Ashley Judd from those serial killer movies she did with Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington back in the late 90s and early 2000s. She always played the young cop, very professional, very easy to relate to. I was expecting her to fill a similar role in "Missing," but instead Becca Winstone is one of the most ridiculous characters to appear in prime time in the last few years. The writers can't seem to decide if they want her to be a hardened CIA agent or a normal woman in extraordinary circumstances. In the second of the two episodes I watched, she negotiates a deal with a corrupt politician, scales the side of building, and subdues pursuers with some pretty nifty fighting moves. Twenty minutes later, after narrowly missing a chance to rescue her son, she's sitting on an airport tarmac, bawling her head off.
Over and over again, Becca insists that she's not an agent, but "a mother looking for her son." The show's production team seems to agree with her, frequently dressing Becca in baby pinks, and shooting her from unflattering angles to make her look more dowdy. The trouble is that Becca is most certainly not a normal soccer mom, and every time she stops to get misty-eyed and express her private anguish, often at the most inopportune moments, she tends to come off as incompetent. The blatant displays of naked emotion don't make her seem more motherly, but rather tend to undermine her toughness. At one point one of her few allies, Adriano (Giancarlo Rossi) tells her that she needs to stop thinking like a mother, relying on passion and instinct, and start thinking rationally again, like an agent.
And that's really with the problem with the show's conception of Becca as a mother. "Missing" has been compared, mostly negatively, with the Liam Neeson film "Taken," where he plays the same type of character - an ex- field agent of a government agency, who goes on a vigilante campaign through France to save his kidnapped teenage daughter. Neeson's character doesn't act remotely rationally through the entire movie. He's entirely driven by passion and emotion, breaking rules left and right, endangering innocents, and being incredibly reckless. His behavior is seen as extreme but ultimately helpful, because he'll cross boundaries that the police can't or won't. Becca Winstone's emotions are more often treated as a liability, because they're made to manifest in a more traditionally passive feminine fashion - waterworks and temporary paralysis. But for a professionally trained former CIA agent, how on earth do these reactions make sense?
It's extremely frustrating because there have been plenty of heroines on both the large and small screens who don't fall prey to this kind of stereotyping. Some of the most memorable female badasses have been mothers or driven by fierce maternal instincts. Sarah Conner of the "Terminator" franchise is the most obvious one, along with Ripley from "Alien," and The Bride from "Kill Bill." All had their moments of softness and vulnerability, but only when it was appropriate for them to do so. Becca Winstone, by contrast, seems to suffer some kind of emotional disorder where she can't keep her emotions in check at all. This might have been an interesting wrinkle if the show was willing to address the issue directly, but of course it doesn't.
Now there's plenty about "Missing" that I like. Cliff Curtis is a highlight as CIA agent Dax Miller, who is charged with finding Becca and sending her home. Giancarlo Rossi does the best he can with a very broadly drawn character. I also expect to see more of Sean Bean, who plays Becca's husband Paul, though his character was killed off in the opening minutes of the first episode. And as I've said, the production values of "Missing" are very high, and offer plenty of good eye candy. However, "Missing" is about Becca Winstone, who has the lion's share of the screen time. And she's so badly written, she doesn't come off as a genuine human being, making it difficult to be either impressed by her skills or moved by her plight.
This is not the way to do woman-friendly action, people.