It's hard to believe it's only been a year since American television fielded two competing missing-persons dramas -- NBC's "Kidnapped" and Fox's "Vanished," which themselves disappeared without a trace in fairly short order. (Amazing how time and TV plow mercilessly on.) Now, coming fortuitously late to that party, we have "Five Days," an HBO miniseries produced "in association with the BBC," although the more accurate formulation is probably the one applied to its original U.K. showing last January -- that is, a BBC production made "in association with HBO." Even though it will conclude all its business within the next five weeks, it may still be ranked as one of the fall season's best series.
Where its American cousins were pumped up with conspiracy and important people and supercops, "Five Days," which is set in the leafy London suburb of Hertfordshire, is more modest and down to earth. It looks at the way that private tragedies play out as public events and strangers lay claim to other people's pain to make sense of their own. It's subtle and serious but suspenseful and, in its measured way, romantic as well.
One can't really say much about it without saying too much. A woman driving the younger two of her three children to see her grandfather in a nursing home stops to buy flowers on the side of a highway and, in the time it takes a truck to block the view, is gone; the children wander off toward home and are soon missing themselves. There is a husband who is sometimes a suspect; a mother and father whose own marriage is strained by their daughter's disappearance; a first husband, living in France; an angry stepdaughter; a woman who attaches herself to the family for reasons slow to be revealed. All are, one might say, not what they seem, or what they seem to themselves, and you are allowed to sympathize with them one moment and wish they'd shut up, or grow up, the next.
They are joined by a man who runs an animal shelter, a woman who runs a health club, a suburban cub reporter on a bicycle, a big city reporter in a car, a newspaper publisher in a bunny suit, your standard-issue Loner in a Van, and a welter of police officers of varying rank, duties, sexes, colors and opinions, about whom much is suggested in impressively short order, so that their influence and apparent depth of character are in most cases greater than their actual screen time. One is more than a little disappointed to lose them at the end.
The large and excellent cast includes Penelope Wilton (a career stretching from "The Norman Conquests" to "Dr. Who"); Edward Woodward, who in another century was "The Equalizer"; and Patrick Malahide. Sparring senior detectives Hugh Bonneville and Janet McTeer (who won a Golden Globe several years back for her work in "Tumbleweeds") are especially good together. David Oyelowo, Sarah Smart and Michelle Bonnard are among the younger faces recognizable to adepts of British television.
They cross or nearly cross paths with a coincidental frequency unheard of outside the novels of Charles Dickens or an episode of "Lost," but this only serves to emphasize the small-town small world in which "Five Days" takes place, and emphasize just how lost (in multiple senses of the word) one can become even within a narrow space.
The strength of the series lies not in the whodunit elements -- it isn't hard to work out who's behind it, even if it isn't immediately apparent why -- but in its eye for local details and small human gestures. Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes insists on the mundane underpinnings even of extraordinary human affairs: "Motive's just for storybooks," says Bonneville's character. "I can barely work out my own motive for getting up in the morning." It's the old human mysteries that dominate here, and they are unsolvable.
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)