‘Missing: Dead Or Alive?’ Review: Is Netflix True-Crime Documentary Worth Streaming?


Among what seems to be an endless list of Netflix true-crime shows, “Missing: Dead or Alive?” is the latest addition. A department of investigators in South Carolina is at the center of this new documentary, as they work on missing person cases and try to find the people who have disappeared under suspicious circumstances before it is too late. There is also enough focus on the personal struggles and difficulties that the investigators have to face because of their emotionally demanding job. But “Missing: Dead or Alive” misses the sweet spot of balance between humanizing the people we see on screen and the tense situations that are at the center of it. Ultimately, the docuseries is mediocre at best and can leave viewers wanting more depth.

The basic plot in “Missing: Dead or Alive” is just what you would expect from its title, with four cases presented over four episodes. At the heart of these investigations are three police detectives from the sheriff’s department of a small South Carolina County. Heidi Jackson, a veteran detective and currently the captain of the Missing Person department; Vicki Rains, who has recently moved to the department from Major Crimes and is given the responsibility of investigating missing adult persons; and J.P. Smith, who looks over the cases where minors are missing. Together with other officers and helpers, the three look into the missing reports one after the other while the documentary crew films them. The first case is of a sixty-one-year-old woman named Lorraine Garcia who goes missing from her house all of a sudden. With a potentially dangerous and mentally disturbed son who had developed PTSD from his time serving in the US Army in Iraq, Lorraine’s case has to be given the utmost importance, and the detectives pour all their efforts into it. The second case is of a ten-year-old girl, Amirah Watson, who goes missing in a strange circumstance, as her own mother seems to have run away with the girl. Amirah’s parents are divorced, with the court having given custody to the father, and it is clear that she is not too safe with the mother.

The third case is even more bizarre and one with most unknown factors, as a man in his seventies named David Taylor goes missing right after winning a $10,000 lottery. While the fact that David’s truck was found randomly parked by the side of the Interstate freeway along with his wallet seems to suggest that the man might have escaped from his life willingly, his family is adamant that the man would never abandon them like this. The last case is again of a missing minor, seventeen-year-old Sierra Stevens, who had gone to watch a film at the theater but never returned to her foster home since. Although this could also have been a case of willing disappearance, Sierra had crucially left behind all of her personal belongings and items, which surely rules out the possibility of her having willingly run away.

“Missing: Dead or Alive” wants to largely point out the very uncertain endings that cases of missing persons can have since the victims could very well be either dead or alive. Vicki Rains talks about this uncertainty, too, as she is new to this feeling after having worked on cases of murders and deaths in major crimes. As much as the investigators need to find the victim and ensure their safety, they also feel it is a necessary responsibility to keep the families informed and also look after their emotional condition. This is where the investigators find their job so taxing, as they also have to become one with the suffering families. The docuseries also provides a point of drama in this regard when Vicki considers returning to Major Crimes after being too moved by a case.

Despite such humanizing touches to the main individuals seen on the screen, the series often lacks a much-needed balance between the two sides. Scenes that deal with the personal struggles of the detectives often feel heavy on the emotional side, which is then followed by scenes of the investigation. The detective work presented here is also very watered-down and simplified. Most new events come in the form of updates and notifications, and we are never really made part of the intricacies of the research. We do see the detectives call up people or drive to places to move the cases forward, but the hardcore elements that can be very well utilized in a genre like true-crime documentary never find their place in “Missing: Dead or Alive.” Therefore, the show arguably loses out on both sides—the investigative part as well as the emotional angle, neither of which is given much depth.

If the docuseries is indeed compared to other similar works of the same genre, then it can also be felt that the cases here are not as interesting. There is, of course, the fact that the victims here are real people, and there is not much need to sensationalize their situations. With regards to what the show sets out to achieve, which is the uncertainty involved in such cases, it is well presented with enough variety. In one of the four cases, the show also presents the perspective of the victims themselves fearing the involvement of the police, as they do not believe the authorities to be really helpful for all. This thought is, of course, overturned by the end, as is natural in a series about police work.

“Missing: Dead or Alive” employs an extremely simple and straightforward narrative and arrangement, too, with a new case starting only after the previous one has been solved or ended. However, a strange structure is used: all the cases spill over to the next episode, and not a single case is solved in one entire part. It is not even like the following episodes always contain the ongoing case for long minutes, but it is almost like the creators want you to start watching the next episode only to know the conclusive end of the previous case. Overall, “Missing: Dead or Alive” can be interesting to watch if you are specifically looking for something from the police’s perspective or one that deals with cases of missing reports. Purely for the true-crime element, though, there are far better shows and films on Netflix itself.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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