Missing: Dead Or Alive is a four-part docuseries that follows the members of the Missing Persons Bureau of the Richland County, South Carolina Sherriff’s Department as they investigate four different cases. All of the members of the squad know they’re up against the clock, as the longer a person remains missing, the more likely something bad has happened to them. But they’re determined to find people and bring closure to their loved ones.
MISSING: DEAD OR ALIVE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A sheriff’s department car drives along a street in Columbia, South Carolina. Vicki Rains, an investigator for the Richland County Sherriff’s Department’s Missing Persons Bureau calls in a new case she’s looking into.
The Gist: The first case is of Loretta Garcia, a 61-year-old woman who was reported missing by her former daughter-in-law. Garcia had been living in her home with her son Anthony, a former Iraq veteran who has been known to have violent outburtsts.
When Rains, along with investigator J.P. Smith, reach the house, it’s abandoned, with a big garbage pile outside that contains photos of Loretta and other seemingly sentimental items. Anthony is nowhere to be found. A door in the garage is mysteriously barricaded shut, and one of the rooms smells suspiciously of bleach. They need a warrant to investigate further.
The next morning, Captain Heidi Jackson goes over the case with the squad, and makes finding Anthony a priority. They do see him back at the house, and when they question him, he’s evasive and difficult. They do eventually convince him to come back to the precinct for questioning, and he repeatedly tells Smith and Rains that he has nothing to do with her being missing. The last he saw her he was taking her to the hospital because she’s been off her meds and has been paranoid. He has no answer for why he didn’t report her missing.
Meanwhile, back at Garcia’s house, Jackson and another investigator, Nina Mauldin, find a burned cell phone in the pile of garbage. After getting a search warrant, they find that the barricaded room is just storage, but it has a lot of bank information for Loretta. Also found in the search is a bloodied air mattress, where Loretta supposedly slept.
Andrew Garcia continues to maintain his innocence, and is proving to be difficult for the investigators to get to open up. After encountering someone coming to install a carpet, they find out that Andrew sold the house to someone via a Facebook Marketplace listing, despite the fact that the house is in his mother’s name. Then a piece of evidence comes up that gives the officers a glimmer of hope that Loretta is still alive.
Our Take: The way that executive producer Graeme McAulay, director Alex Irvine-Cox and the crew that created Missing: Dead Or Alive have assembled the series is a bit unusual in this genre. It plays out more like a scripted drama, with narration from both Rains and Jackson overlaying scenes that seem to give the show a narrative propulsion you don’t often see from true-crime docuseries.
It’s a more effective device than we thought it might be, despite the fact that some of the scenes feel less fly-on-the-wall than they’re intended to be. We do think that some of the scenes aren’t quite spontaneous, but that happens in reality TV all the time, where a director reshoots a conversation that just happened in order to give it a bit more clarity. These are cops, not reality TV stars, so there is a bit of a forced feeling to these scenes.
What we’re amazed about even more is that Anthony Garcia seemed to have no problems letting the cameras follow him around and interview him after the Missing Persons Bureau questioned him. Maybe he was confident in his innocence, but if the cops were looking at me for doing possible harm to my own mother, I’m not sure I’d want cameras following me around. What the cameras do reveal about Garcia, though, is how much damage being in Iraq has done to him, but that, as one of the officers says in her voice over that many of the people they’re investigating are ultimately good people who have made bad decisions.
We don’t get a resolution to the case by the end of the first episode, but we do get it a few minutes into the second, before the squad moves on to another case. It was a bit disappointing to see that happen, given that we spent over an hour watching the members of the squad going around and around with Garcia and not making any headway. There seemed to be a bit of fat that could have been cut out and the pace quickened a bit; given how wildly different the runtimes of the episodes are, we know that was possible. The slow pace of the episode made it all the more frustrating that we had to click over to the next one to find out if Loretta was OK or not.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: The officers listen to a recording of a woman purporting to be Loretta talking to her bank’s customer service, saying she has a different address now.
Sleeper Star: The entire squad is doing yeoman’s work, and they all cite the fact that they wanted to work for Missing Persons because they wanted to try to find people before bad things happened to them.
Most Pilot-y Line: The aforementioned not-so-spontaneous scenes are also backgrounded by dramatic music that feels more at home on a network drama than a docuseries.
Our Call: STREAM IT. While the production of Missing: Dead Or Alive stretches the idea of “reality” in ways that feel forced, it’s still gratifying to see these smart investigators doing their job, as well as getting some insight into their lives and why they’re doing what they do.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.