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One of the great strengths of television right now is an uninhibited seriousness of purpose. While so much of popular culture is anchored in comic-book craziness and visual gimmicks, or in the half-baked solemnity of young-adult fiction, the material aimed at an adult mind is found all over cable TV.

The Missing (Super Channel, Wednesday, 10 p.m.) is for grown-ups. It has a gravity that the adolescent mind is unlikely to appreciate, let alone savour. There is a depth of feeling to it that you connect with, if you have accrued life's experiences of loss, doubt and regret. It is also a bloody brilliant thriller about the long search for a missing child.

At the start we meet an Englishman alone in a town in France. He's Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) and he looks like crap – ravaged, depressed with a hint of anger, and he drinks too much. The locals are wary of him. And then as the time frame shifts back, we know why.

It's 1998 and Hughes, with his wife Emily (Frances O'Connor) and their two children, are driving through France, at the start of a holiday. They're very ordinary, middle-class people. Emily is annoyed when Tony takes a phone call from work. They're on holiday! They have car trouble and must stay for a day or two in an unfamiliar town. It's a Sunday, in fact the Sunday of the World Cup final, France against Brazil.

Tony and his son, five-year-old Olly, go for a swim. Then they go to a crowded bar to watch some of the soccer. Olly is beside Tony throughout. The game – it is real footage we see on the TV in the bar – unfolds, the crowd gets excited as France pushes forward.

For a brief instant we see the loud adults from little Olly's viewpoint and a vague sense of menace descends. Tony lets go of Olly's hand, for a few seconds, to search for money to pay for the drinks. In those few seconds, France scores, the crowd erupts and Olly vanishes.

The sense of alarm and dire fright is profound. Tony searches for the boy, but the crowd is uninterested, their eyes and ears only on the soccer. The viewer has the sense that this is how it will always be – a distraught parent stuck in a world where nobody really understands what's happened and many don't care much. It's his problem. The world keeps turning.

Tony has some French, Emily doesn't. Their contact with the local police is fraught. One French detective has the air of a man who has lost all faith in humanity. A boy is missing but France has won the World Cup and every person in the country seems to be drunk, delirious, uncaring. And we know from the opening scene that, years later, Tony is a wrecked man. We know that years of frustration and damage are ahead.

The Missing borrows a bare narrative outline from the real case of Madeleine McCann – a British child snatched during a European holiday; suggestions the local police did not act properly; an intrusive tabloid press looking for flaws in the parents and the parents determined to declare that they did nothing wrong.

But this is fiction – made by the BBC with the Starz channel in the United States – unfolding as a complex thriller, shifting across the years through warped relationships, through the pointless pursuit of clues. There is a permanent sense of unease. At the start, when Tony is seen returning to the scene of the crime, he says, in a phone call, "I've found something." It takes some time before that seems real, not something imagined by a near-demented father. The journey there is not precise, it's painful, but fully gripping. Written by Harry and Jack Williams and directed by Tom Shankland, The Missing is eight episodes only and not a scene seems wasted. It's spare yet complex and its tone of desolation is what grown-ups only will truly grasp.

Also airing Wednesday

SNL Thanksgiving Special

(NBC, 9 p.m.) is an allegedly "hilarious compilation of the best Thanksgiving-themed clips from 40 years of the iconic late-night series Saturday Night Live." You're on your own if you're disappointed and not laughing.

Nature: An Original DUCKumentary

(PBS, 9 p.m.) is a repeat, but if you don't know this cutie, it's a peach of a nature show. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck as they court and then mate, and eventually raise a family of the most darling and brave little ducklings ever seen on TV. Witness little balls of fluff grow up, learn stuff and worry mom and dad. Narrated by actor Paul Giamatti, it's terrifically soothing.

All times Eastern. Check local listings.

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