A disappearance has always been a potent place to begin a story – you start with an absence and fill it in with memory, mystery, conjecture and imagination. But recent years have seen a surge in TV series that place a child at the centre of this theme, resulting in heart-wrenching tales and compelling programming.
The most prominent example of this is Netflix’s wildly popular Stranger Things, which began in 2016 and has now been renewed for a third season. The show began with Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce Byers, going on a quest for her missing son. What ensues is an intriguing supernatural drama as Byers fights monsters to find her son, lost in a dark underworld called the Upside Down. At the end of the first season, another character is lost to the monster. The show has made stars out of its talented young cast, notably, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and Shannon Purser.
Netflix’s 2017 first German-language original, Dark, also takes the missing child trope, and adds a fair share of mind-bending time travel to the mix.
The theme has also found great resonance in British television.
The most recent example is the 2018 drama Kiri, which centres on the abduction and then murder of the nine-year-old titular character. Kiri Akindele is a black girl about to be officially adopted by her middle-class white foster family when she goes missing. What ensues is a blame game, the primary target of which is the child’s to-be adoptive mother and social worker Miriam Grayson, played by Sarah Lancashire.
Kiri caps a long list of British television shows that share a similar premise. Broadchurch (2013-’17), starring Olivia Colman and David Tennant, takes the suffering child trope to a devastating level, introducing us to the character at the centre of the story, 11-year-old, Danny Latimer only after he has been found dead. As the titular small town grapples with an unthinkable tragedy, his mother grieves and his father withers away. The ensuing murder investigation turns the lens on the community and its many cracks and flaws.
Around the same time, BBC came out with its picturesque but grim drama series, Top of the Lake, about the search of a pregnant 12-year-old who has run away from home. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is forced to confront her own bottled-up childhood trauma while looking for the girl, Tui.
In the 2014 British show The Missing, it is the turn of father (James Nesbitt) to embark on a solitary quest for his son Oliver, eight years after the child, then five, went missing during a family holiday in France. The series never overdoes the sentimentality or exploit its emotional possibilities, but remains hauntingly painful. The show completed its second season in 2016 and speculation is rife over the possibility of a third.
That this is not an exhaustive list of shows about missing children indicates the obsession with the idea. But what is it about a child in peril that gets us to switch on the TV or spend countless hours binge-watching the show online, even if its hurts?
Perhaps it is rooted in our primal protective instincts being challenged, as adults are shown losing control of their lives, helpless in the face of a crushing disaster that they never recover from. Could it be that it forces us to confront the vulnerability of our lives and the looming threat of loss and tragedy, one that seems ever greater when it is a childhood that is cut short? In a television landscape (and world) littered with grey areas and unfortunate events, children are traditionally the saving grace, symbol of hopes and optimism for a better future. The idea of a child in danger tests that belief. And if there is uncertainty about the fate of that child, the precarious hope of a happy ending is the best way to keep viewers hooked till the very end.