AXN is probably the most popular TV channel you’ve never heard of. Owned by Sony, it’s available all over Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Just not the US or the UK.
In part, its anonymity stems from largely airing re-runs of English-language TV shows made in the US and Canada, rather than making anything of its own. However, that’s changing and one of the first scripted dramas to hit AXN in a staggered schedule around the world is Absentia. Designed to appeal just a little bit to each of AXN’s various regions, it also proves that the dominant worldwide paradigm for television is American. Or at least the rest of the world’s idea of what American television is.
It stars Stana Katic (Heroes, Castle) as a US FBI agent who’s abducted by a serial killer who does nasty things like cut off his victim’s eyelids. No one can find her or her body, but in her absence, banker Richard Brake (Batman Begins) is convicted of her murder and sent to jail. Her husband, fellow FBI agent Patrick Heusinger (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) keeps looking but never finds her until eventually he’s forced to give up.
Six years later, Heusinger’s moved on and has married Cara Theobold (Crazyhead). Together, they raise his and Katic’s son. Then one night he gets a call, apparently from Brake, telling him where to find Katic. And she is where he says she is – and alive.
Traumatised, she can’t remember much from her time in captivity beyond her abuse, so tries to build a new life for herself and recover what she can of her old life, despite her husband having moved on and her son now regarding Theobold as his mum. At the same time, her return to the world means that Brake is released from jail and the hunt for the real killer – or maybe Brake’s partner in crime – begins again. Trouble is that evidence begins to mount up that maybe Katic had something to do with some recent crimes and she wasn’t as much of a prisoner as she claims.
As you may have gathered, the whole thing is set in Boston. Except it’s actually filmed in Sofia, in Bulgaria, by people who seem to think that Boston looks like Georgetown in Washington DC during the 70s. I’m not 100% sure if the aim is to make everything look like The Exorcist, but it works if it does and there is some lovely quiet and often tense direction. It’s just not Boston.
Given the location, AXN’s audience and the need for a cast who can speak English with an American accent, you won’t be too surprised to hear that the cast is mostly British, including Theobold, Brake, Katic’s alcoholic ex-surgeon brother Neil Jackson (Sleepy Hollow), her dad Paul Freeman (Belloq in Raiders of the Last Ark) and most disconcertingly for British viewers, Katic’s FBI boss and potential serial killer Ralph Inerson – Ricky Gervais’ mate Finchy on The Office.
Add on to that, though, we have two Israelis – Katic and Angel Bonanni, best known for playing ‘Sean’ in כפולים (False Flag), who plays the ex-undercover Boston PD cop who’s trying to see whether Katic really is a killer or whether she’s being framed by a mole. There’s also Mexican actor Bruno Bichir playing the FBI psychologist helping Katic to deal with her trauma and profiling the killer. Dotted around the cast, there are a few Central Europeans, largely playing Russians and Central Europeans, particularly strippers.
You can’t really fault the cast for Absentia. They’re all pretty good, particularly Katic. Some of the Brits wobble back into English accents occasionally, but no one, not even the Americans, has decided doing a Boston accent is a worthwhile endeavour. It’s trans-Atlantic to mid-West all the way down the line.
But a strangely disconcerting lack of place in a show so fixated on place is the least of Absentia‘s worries. It’s just so ordinary. And slow. I’ve watched the three episodes that have aired so far and they don’t exactly skip by.
While it has good production values, up against a regular US TV show, it just looks derivative and uninspired. The “devious serial killers working in pairs” is hardly the most innovative storyline and neither is “there’s a mole in the bureau!” The idea that everyone would be focused on Katic as a potential killer is nonsense and the fact she’s basically been doing Room for six years would surely have landed her far more emotional support than she gets. They certainly wouldn’t let her out into the big wide world that quickly, with her former abductor still on the loose, for sure.
So the police/FBI/serial killer storyline is mostly just nonsense. Where the show does work quite well is when it focuses on Katic’s attempts to recover her life, where it manages to avoid cliché. Theobold is kind and sympathetic towards her husband’s potential true love, and is temporarily willing to let her into her life at least. She’s also similarly generous in sharing her adopted son with Katic so he can reacquaint himself with his mother.
Katic does a good job as a traumatised mother who’s lost everything. And while the torn Heusinger looks like he’s constantly constipated and comes across as weak most of the time, at least he’s not a dick about the situation (although Patrick Brammall’s similar tortured cop in Glitch is a significantly better performance).
But really, Absentia is designed mainly to look and be as American as possible, to appeal to an audience that mainly watches American TV, wherever they happen to be in the world, whether they’ve ever been to the US or not. At that level, it succeeds, even if to the average American, I imagine it would neither feel authentic or especially good, as it retreads what countless other movies and shows have already done.
Still, it might work on CBS.
Barrometer rating: 3