The rise of streaming TV has been a blessing and a curse. More platforms mean more options, experimentation, and diverse voices. The scope of television is now as expansive or as intimate as whatever show you are watching. But there’s a hidden catch: Shows that once would’ve been deemed great are now merely good and shows that would’ve been called mediocre 10 years ago seem awful.
Absentia is one of the worst shows I’ve seen in a long time, made all the more unbearable by the countless similar series which have preceded it.
The new mystery from Amazon stars Castle’s Stana Katic as FBI agent Emily Byrne. Declared dead in absentia (like the title!) after being missing for six years, Emily suddenly reappears when her ex-husband, Nick (Patrick Heusinger), gets a phone call in the middle of the night with directions to a cabin where she’s being held captive. As Emily tries to pull six years of lost memories out of the trauma she’s suffered, all while being forced to cope with the fact that her husband has remarried a woman who’s now raising their son, the man convicted of her murder (the always creepy Richard Brake) is released from prison. Even worse, a new suspect in her case turns up dead, with Emily’s DNA on his body. As Emily essentially becomes a suspect in her own disappearance, she sets out to hunt down the serial killer she was tracking before she went missing.
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Absentia’s problem isn’t its premise, which is no better or worse than your average gritty crime drama. In one of the show’s better bits of dialog, Emily describes her situation as a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life; she looks at her husband and her son and sees what their lives are like without her in them, and they seem to her to be better off. It’s an awful quagmire, and the situation would play better in a show that could separate itself from gritty crime dramas.
But Absentia so completely personifies the mundane procedural that it actually becomes awful, due to that worse-by-comparison rule mentioned above. I got through half the 10-episode season, paying as much attention to the dull proceedings as I could, and that felt like a real achievement.
Katic elevates the dull project, just like she was the best thing about Frank Miller’s lowly The Spirit. Ralph Ineson (The Witch) remains a gruff, always-interesting English character actor who pulls of an American accent better than I would’ve expected here.
The writing in Absentia, however, from creators Matthew Cirulnick and Gaia Violo, is profoundly uninspired. And since television remains a writers’ medium, the show never recovers from this cardinal sin. I’m sure lines like “You think you’ve got a monopoly on pain?” sounded good the first time they were written, but on-screen they’ve become a cliche of a cliche. What’s more, the plot comes down to recycled twists and turns that we’ve all seen on better shows before this one. Even when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next, you kind of do, because the music cues up in some familiar way, or someone unexpected appears from the shadow, or a burst of violence flares up in trite and tired fashion, telegraphing every move Cirulnick and Violo have up their sleeves.
Make no mistake, we love bad crime shows. At least network filler like NCIS knows what it is, and isn’t reaching to be part of some grand tradition of prestige drama. Absentia isn’t even bad enough to be interesting.
Say what you will about the terrible second season of True Detective, but I would take the tonal weirdness of that mess any day over the humorless, watered-down gloom of Absentia. The look of the show itself is representative of its lack of originality—sleek and bleak digital darkness. (The series is set in Boston but was filmed in Bulgaria.)
Amazon has lent almost no promotion to Absentia since its release this month, going full Netflix, and dropping it on users without warning or desire. It’s a sad state of affairs for what was once one of the most exciting streaming services.
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