‘The Cry’ Isn’t Just The Newest Crime Drama, It’s An Addictive Nightmare

The ABC's new missing child drama is compulsive viewing.

The Cry ABC

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Every few years, a missing child case captivates global media attention with a frenzy usually reserved for celebrities and scandals.

The innocence and vulnerability of children make the notion of harming them seem a uniquely heinous crime. But that doesn’t explain why certain cases become household names — Madeleine McCann, Azaria Chamberlain — while others are ignored.

Race and class often have much to do with airtime — as Jon Stewart acerbically put it in his 2004 book:

“y (minutes of media coverage) = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness ÷ Skin Color)2 + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents3″

The progression of these horror stories is predictable: the parents’ grief mined for headline gold, their innocence questioned, accusations flung around, misinformation reported, culminating in a media nightmare atop a living nightmare: television documentaries, books, special anniversary supplements, and online forums full of conspiracy theories.

The TV drama The Cry navigates this hellscape, centring on a young couple who come to Australia with their baby son, to fight for custody of the man’s daughter from a previous marriage.

Things go amiss when something happens to their baby, Noah, and the result is four episodes of enjoyably stressful television.

The Cry

Based on Australian author Helen Fitzgerald’s novel of the same name, the BBC-ABC co-production is set between Glasgow and the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria.

It was watched by more than six million people when it premiered in the UK last year, and for good reason. Part of its allure is that it convincingly reconstructs the emotional architecture of missing children’s cases which inspire in us a heady mix of morbid fascination, pathos and the relief that the victim family’s misfortune is not our own.

Billed as a psychological thriller, The Cry unpacks a lot: a custody dispute, a wine-guzzling ex-wife (played by an indomitable Asher Keddie), small-town paranoia, and an international media circus, not to mention examinations of gendered power dynamics and parenthood.

The series opens with a media scrum: we meet Joanna (Jenna Coleman), heading to court in a blood-red dress, hounded by a pack of photogs. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that she is a primary school teacher and a new mother, and that her partner Alistair is a political press secretary.

No More Hand Holding

The Australian actor Ewen Leslie, who plays the character of Alistair, says he was impressed by the show’s non-linear storyline.

“I don’t think it really holds your hand,” he tells me.

Instead, it “respects the viewer’s intelligence”, jumping between the past and an ongoing trial, the reasons for which are initially unknown. Joanna maintains an enigmatic bearing throughout it all, even when she declares to a psychiatrist (Shauna Macdonald): “Of all the things that can happen to a person, there’s few things that could be worse.”

As the first episode progresses, fragments are pieced together like the reconstruction of a crime scene.

A portrait of a struggling mother gradually emerges. Baby Noah cries incessantly, and Joanna is not coping. Whether she is suffering from postnatal depression or purely exhaustion is open to interpretation.

She is that pariah of every international plane trip: the overwrought parent trying in vain to comfort the colicky baby as other passengers grow exasperated. Beside her on a flight to Melbourne, Alistair sleeps soundly, until unnecessary complaints from neighbouring travellers cause her to snap at them.

Assumptions about the capabilities of Joanna as a mother fall thick and fast.

Women Who Have It All

In a culture of performative workaholism, where work is fetishised and women are encouraged to “lean in”, a juggle between career and carer responsibilities is expected of mothers.

But — if the bias in media interviews is reflective of anything, it’s not considered a problem men have to contend with — the differential treatment of male and female politicians an apt example.

Women who appear to “have it all” are fêted, which creates the unfortunate effect of alienating those who are struggling to cope, or who feel like they are not coping as well as everyone else. Most new mothers I know have experienced some combination of chronic sleep deprivation, up-the-walls boredom and frustration.

My hairdresser went inexplicably and permanently deaf in one ear. A cousin’s hair started falling out in clumps. (Motherhood sounds amazing; I can’t wait!) So, when social media is awash with supposedly empowering pictures tagged #girlboss, and six-packed influencers doing workouts with their toddlers, a comparative sense of inadequacy is in no short supply.

Imperfect Motherhood

The imperfect mothers in The Cry are cursed to paddle against the tide of public judgement.

Despite her better instincts, Joanna wades into the maelstrom of online opinion, secretly and obsessively scrolling through social media.

In the eye of the media storm, her every word, gesture and facial expression are minutely scrutinised, including by Alistair, who — like any good publicist worth his salt — replays interview footage to give notes on how they can better appeal to the public.

Leslie tells me he was drawn to the complexity of Alistair’s character.

“I think from his point of view, he’s like, ‘Joanna’s not built for this situation, and this is what I do for a living, so I can take complete care of this’,” he says. “He is controlling, he is manipulative, he is a narcissist…but he is also a father,” he adds.

“He’s obviously dealing with his own level of grief over what has happened.”

The episodes ratchet up in intensity as the narrative progresses, revealing characters in unflattering or downright unlikeable lights. Following the show’s success in the UK, Leslie says he is excited for Australian audiences to see it.

As for a trial by public opinion?

“Maybe I’ll stay off Twitter,” he says.

The Cry airs Sunday Feb 3 at 8.30pm, ABC + iView.

Donna Lu is a writer based in London. She has written for The Guardian, Good Weekend and The Saturday Paper. She tweets @donnadlu.