This review contains spoilers.
We last saw Julien Baptiste going under anaesthetic on the surgeon’s table. Judging by episode one of this The Missing spin-off, he never fully woke up. Baptiste has always been among the whisperer-poet class of TV detectives, but in this new crime mystery, he comes across as less Zen genius, more exhausted owl.
The lack of energy could be down to the repetitive script, which has Tcheky Karyo repeat so many variations of “I’m not the man I used to be” to so many people that it begins to sound like a coded message he’s using to try to reach a secret agent. (“I’m not the man I used to be.”/ ‘The eagles have nested in the north.’) Perhaps the emphasis is a poor-taste joke foreshadowing one of the episode’s twists: glamorous female café owner Kim having transitioned from her former identity as vicious male gang-leader Dragomir. Kim, played by Talisa Garcia, is also not the man she once was.
Kim’s gender transition coincided with an ethical tidy-up in which she became an ally to, rather than an exploiter of, sex workers. Now, she’s in hiding from the police and making amends. Natalie Rose, the missing girl Baptiste has been dragged in to find—according to her uncle, an orphan who left his care and fell into a life of drugs and sex work—is holed up in a houseboat under Kim’s protection.
In a twist easier to see coming than the Rotterdam ferry, Natalie’s uncle, played by Tom Hollander, isn’t her uncle. He’s a right wrong’un who keeps human heads in his London basement.
Specifically, the human head of a Kentish beachcomber, whose murder is presented in the episode’s opening moments with the kind of glib violence that aims for Tarantino irony but lands on simple nastiness. Returning from the beach with a rare seashell, the victim greets a tall stranger at his door. ‘Hello,’ says the tall stranger. ‘I’m here to read your meter, suffocate you to death and then cut you up with a chainsaw.’
So he does. Designed to shock, the opening scene’s sole tension came from what that chainsaw would do to the soft furnishings. (That little plastic for that wide a splatter zone? Is this his first beheading?)
Exactly how the basement head, the fake uncle, the tall stranger, Kim the café owner, Natalie Rose, her abducted and sex-trafficked younger sister, a tulip farmer and a German shepherd named Caspar all tie together is for the next five episodes to tell us.
The question is: can you be arsed to find out? In the saturated crime drama market, Baptiste feels disappointingly retro. Its barely conscious lead has been saddled with soporific dialogue. “Human feeling is a mystery” he pronounces. It’s a good job something is, because episode one’s twists felt thuddingly predictable.
The Amsterdam setting felt like an excuse for the drama to press its nose up against the windows of the Red Light District (telly rarely visits the city’s zoo, does it? Or its many distinguished museums), while the inclusion of a trans brothel (the second to feature in The Missing universe) felt salacious rather than inclusive. Romanian people-traffickers, the abuse of abducted underage girls, the sex industry-as-titillating-backdrop… Baptiste is shuffling over old crime drama ground.
There is one good reason to watch: a suspicion that in future weeks, Tom Hollander may just do a vividly wall-crawling job of playing an utter, utter bastard. Aside from the hope of that – vitality, real-feeling characterisation, twists capable of surprise… so far, that’s the missing here.
Baptiste continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.