Imagine your mom beating an assassin to death. That's Missing, a junky, shameless but likable action series premiering tonight on ABC (8 pm/7 central). Ashley Judd, who's somehow made a whole career out of being underrated, plays Becca Stone, a retired CIA operative whose teenage son (Nick Eversman) gets kidnapped when he goes off to college in Rome. Like Liam Neeson in Taken, the 2010 hit about a former intelligence agent amassing a colossal body count while searching for his kidnapped daughter, the star doesn't wink at the audience. Her character is plausibly human and has moments of intense feeling — there's a powerful close-up midway through where she witnesses surveillance footage of the abduction and seems to implode with outrage — but for the most part she's stone-faced, treating an inherently personal mission as yet another assignment to be executed with mathematical ruthlessness. Whether she's taking on a pistol-wielding killer with a coat hanger, leading pursuers on a scooter chase, barking threats in fluent Italian and French, or casually asking a hunky Italian agent to help her unhook her bra strap, Judd never lets on that you're seeing a dark parental fantasy that attains maximum ludicrousness early and gets sillier from there.
If not for the primal allure of the premise and Judd's poker-faced fury in the lead, there would be no reason to watch Missing. I'm already doubtful that creator and executive producer Gregory Poirier (who wrote John Singleton's Rosewood) and company can stretch what feels like a feature-film-suitable plot into a season (or more) of intrigue, and the longer Becca spends on this search, the less fearsome she's going to seem. And some of the lines are so clumsy that they sound like placeholders that were supposed to be replaced with real dialogue but never were. When intelligence agent Dax Miller (Cliff Curtis, sporting a distracting Noo Yawk accent), who's following Becca's rampage, learns that the Carradine character trained her, he asks an underling, "Lovers?" "No," the underling replies. "All indications are he was more like a father figure."
Poirier appears to have conceived this show as a femme-centered riff on the visually jagged modern espionage tale, as typified by Alias, 24, and the Bourne franchise; the stylistic similarities are so brazen that this series could have been titled The Bourne Maternity. The fight scenes are a blur, all tight close-ups and super-fast cuts. Pilot director Steve Shill (Dexter) is unwilling or unable to choreograph a coherent, elegant action sequence. You sorta, kinda know what's going on, thanks to the sound design. But ultimately it doesn't matter as long as Becca gets to the next stage in her mission to find her beloved boy. The prologue and the casting of key cameos tips you off that there's more going on here than a random kidnapping. Ten years earlier, Becca's husband was killed in a terrorist bombing witnessed by their then-young son, and the boy was brought home by Becca's mentor. The veteran viewer's suspicions will be tipped by the sight of Sean Bean playing the husband and Keith Carradine as the mentor. These are big-name character actors that you don't hire for one brief scene in a pilot, therefore they must be part of the conspiracy that Becca hasn't unraveled yet. This isn't a drop-everything-and-pay-attention series. You can half-watch it while doing a crossword.
The premiere boasts intriguing hints of self-awareness but never quite follows through on them, and that's too bad: If Missing had a sharper sense of humor, it could have teased out the spectacle of Ashley Judd as homicidal mama bear and turned the series into a black comedy without sacrificing the story's innate appeal. Becca is an icy-veined killer who can piece together the details of an abduction by spelunking the contents of an iPhone, but she's a mom, too, and the two identities jostle against each other in amusing ways. When Becca questions a young woman who knew her son and she reflexively goes into her purse for a cigarette, Becca interrupts the interrogation to chastise her: "Are you kidding? What are you doing? You're a beautiful girl with a life ahead of you!" ABC missed the boat by not hiring Samuel L. Jackson to narrate the ads: "She's a great mom ... and one baaaad mother."