A simple but solid premise powers Amazon’s new enjoyably twisty and scary detective thriller: FBI agent Emily Byrne is declared dead in absentia but is found six years later, imprisoned in the cellar of a cabin in the woods. Not only does she have to cope with severe PTSD and the fact her husband, also an agent, has remarried, but also somewhere out there is the person – or persons – who abducted her.
Stana Katic (best known for playing Detective Kate Beckett in all eight seasons of ABC’s Castle), plays Byrne – all furtive glances and steely determination, she’s a compellingly troubled heroine. Ex-hubbie Nick (Patrick Heusinger) is her one reliable ally, although the presence of his new wife, frustratingly lovely and understanding Alice (Cara Theobold), is a cause for much conflict. And, when events transpire that suggest that Emily perhaps hasn’t been imprisoned for the entire six years, Nick has to decide whether to back Emily against both the FBI and the Boston PD. But is she playing him for a fool, or is someone out there trying to frame her as part of a wider conspiracy?
The opening episodes throw up oodles more questions, and keep the answers strictly rationed. Each step further into the labyrinth reveals red herrings, or semi-connected subplots, adding layers of complexity that make for addictive viewing. As well as Alice, we have Emily and Nick’s son – now aged 10 – which nicely undercuts the detective work with some tender scenes. And Emily’s chaotic brother, Jack (Neil Jackson ), having succumbed to alcoholism in the wake of his sister’s disappearance, is in the mix – a wild card who will no doubt prove pivotal to the action as the story unfolds.
But it’s Boston PD homicide detective Gibbs (Angel Bonanni) who appears to be the main B-story of the show. A scruffy, undisciplined maverick, he’s the mirror of Nick’s clean-cut professionalism, but also shares some traits – both positive and negative – with Emily. Although by the end of episode four he’s still determined to bring Emily to justice, odds are good that he’ll prove to be a useful ally. As Emily asks him: “What kind of cop are you – one who closes cases, or one who actually solves them?”
It’s all good fun, but the clichés do come thick and fast. We have the “I’ll need your badge and your gun” suspension scene, a lead that just has to take them to a strip club, and grizzled old cops growling lines such as “I was making collars when you were in diapers”. How much viewers are able to ignore – or embrace – these familiar police drama touchstones will determine how much they enjoy Absentia. Those who prefer something less soapy and (slightly) more cerebral can rewatch Dexter over on Now TV, but for anyone after the TV equivalent of an airport paperback, this is perfect.
Absentia: Season 1 is on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes of Season 3 arrive every Thursday.