Fox’s latest foray into the police procedural focuses on the Philadelphia Police Department’s missing person’s unit — telling the stories of all the ways that people might go missing while also diving into the mystery of two officers’ own missing child.
From The Blacklist showrunner John Eisendrath and Jamie Foxx, Alert: Missing Persons Unit follows police officer Nikki Batista’s (Dania Ramirez), who joined the Philadelphia MPU after her son Keith went missing to help other people find their loved ones, she even as she searches for her own. Six years later, her world is turned upside-down when her ex-husband, Jason Grant (Scott Caan), shows up with a proof-of-life photo of their missing boy. Or is it?
The series premiere, which aired Sunday, plants a seed of doubt into viewers’ minds when their son, Keith, is seen ripping up the pages of a diary that contains specific details about his life at the end of the episode after a joyful reunion with his parents.
“We are suggesting that he has something to hide. Is he their son? That is a question that is going to be central to the show, and we will give the audience concrete answers in most episodes to the question that is being asked on that topic in each episode,” Eisendrath told Deadline about the mystery, adding: “What I like is the situation where the audience may be ahead of our heroes. The audience sees Keith ripping those pages out, his parents don’t see it.”
Eisendrath broke down the premiere episode with Deadline and gave some hints about what Nikki and Jason could uncover about the person claiming to be their long-lost son. Episode 2 of Alert: Missing Persons Unit will air Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox in the series’ regular time slot.
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DEADLINE: How did you work to differentiate Alert from the many other law enforcement procedurals that exist on broadcast television?
JOHN EISENDRATH: I think there’s probably two answers to that question. The first is just that a missing persons procedural is very distinct, because the types of stories that one can tell about missing persons are incredibly varied. They can be people who have been taken and are desperate to be found. They can be people who’ve run away and have no interest in being found. They can be stories that involve a crime, anything from kidnapping to murder. They can be stories that have no crime whatsoever involved. So it’s a huge range of possible stories that I find to be very distinct from procedurals that are essentially crime shows. So that I think alone makes it unique. I think missing persons also is something — which I thankfully was wrong — but experienced a few hours of thinking that one of my children had once been taken. And I think that it is something so many of us live with, so many of us fear, so many of us can relate to. I really wasn’t ready to move forward on it until I thought that there could be an interesting puzzle at the center of the story, because for me that is particularly important. Once I imagined that there could be a mystery about Nikki and Jason’s son who had gone missing and has returned, and there could be a mystery about him and his return that would be the emotional core story, I thought that that was exciting and interesting and could pull the viewers along. You have this great irony of the two experts who spend all day trying to find other people’s missing loved ones who have lost a loved one of their own and then are so desperate to get him back that they may miss some clues that other people see about whether or not he is their child.
DEADLINE: As you mentioned, there are so many ways that a person could go missing. Where did you draw inspiration from for some of these stories we’ll see this season?
EISENDRATH: Some of the stories are ripped from the headlines. We’re always looking for the most relatable and emotional core to the story. When you’re thinking about a missing persons story, it’s easy to start thinking about what would be a circumstance that just would be so terrifying or tragic or sad or serious. Everyone has their own fear of one. So the writers, we just imagine putting caring, loving people in that situation. In my case, when one of my sons went missing, I was showing him how to ride his bike, and he started riding his bike, and we were on the block that we lived on and he went around the corner. I was so excited. I ran after him. I turn the corner, and he was gone. I went all the way around the block. He was nowhere to be found. I spent an hour going to restaurants, convenience stores, all in my neighborhood, asking ‘Have you seen this boy?’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna have a child who’s been taken.’ It turned out that he was in the house the whole time. He’d gone all the way around the block and gone inside. I never bothered to look inside because I just thought he was gone. So we’re doing a story on the show where it begins with two parents teaching their child to ride a bike and they go around the corner, and the child is gone. We start with something very simple that everyone can connect to, and then we build the mystery from there.
DEADLINE: I’m also glad you mentioned Keith, because by the end of the first episode it’s clear there is something off. Can you expand on what’s going on there?
EISENDRATH: It’s funny, because when I wrote the pilot, I was worried that I had not given enough clues to the viewer that there might be some mystery about Keith coming back. But everybody who watches television is so trained to look for the mystery that may or may not be there that no one missed the fact that by tearing up the pages in the diary, he might be wanting to hide something. So we are suggesting that he has something to hide. Is he their son? That is a question that is going to be central to the show, and we will give the audience concrete answers in most episodes to the question that is being asked on that topic in each episode. After the first episode, clearly there is a question about who he is. What I like is the situation where the audience may be ahead of our heroes. The audience sees Keith ripping those pages out, his parents don’t see it. So I’m hoping the audience is like, ‘Hey, Nikki and Jason, he ripped the pages out of the diary. Come on, guys. Look, you gotta know there’s something going on.’ Even in the pilot, you might sense that the sister, their daughter, is a little standoffish to Keith. Why is she standoffish? What does she know? It’s going to become evident to the parents, and once the parents start to wonder why their daughter is not bonding with their son that will begin a series of stories that will peel back the question about Keith.
DEADLINE: It’s also pretty clear that Keith returning is going to test some relationships. Mike and Nikki are already in a rocky place by the end of the episode.
EISENDRATH: I’m a huge soap opera fan, I love a good love triangle. But I think what is particularly unique about this one is that everyone’s position is very sympathetic. Jason and Nikki did not get divorced because they mistreated one another, cheated on one another, didn’t love one another. Their marriage floundered because their child was taken and their marriage couldn’t sustain that tragedy. She meets an amazingly nice person in Mike, and we see that they get engaged when we first get to know them. And then yes, Keith comes back. Well, Mike, who by the end of the pilot feels a little bit like the odd man out, understands why he’s the odd man out. He understands that Nikki and Jason need the time to reconstruct their family. Nikki is very clear with both the men in her life that this is a very delicate balancing act between wanting to get her family back and also continue her relationship with Mike. Jason’s in the same position. He desperately wants to spend time with his old family, but he also has moved on in his life. So it’s a situation that not only strains the relationships between Mike and Nikki and Jason, but it also will cause friction between Nikki and Jason because they won’t always agree on how to move forward with Keith, both on the question of who he is, and on the question of how to just reintegrate a now grown child into their world.
DEADLINE: I wanted to also ask about Kemi, because I think she adds a great element to the MPU. Why did you decide to have a character who is faith-oriented, but to also move away from a Christian-centric narrative there?
EISENDRATH: I have had the pleasure and experience of knowing a shaman, a very close member of our extended family. This person has shown me the power of belief in a unique way and the approach to solving emotional problems and practical problems through ritual. I think that from that experience, I have come to believe in its value, and I think [it’s interesting] in a police setting where the solution to the crime or the mystery of the missing person is ultimately going to be fact based. Kemi is not a mystic. Kemi cannot see into the future. Kemi cannot predict the outcome of a scenario based on her belief. But the people who come into the MPU are desperate. They are at their worst possible moment, and I think that someone like Kemi can offer the type of comfort and hope that people in those circumstances desperately need. That affords her being there for the chance to both solve the underlying problem that brings them there, which is the most important thing — finding the missing loved one — but also offer aid and comfort along the way. As for the non-Christian part of it, I think the belief is universal. I don’t think that any particular culture or any particular religion has a corner on that market. And I think that yes, it’s great to see someone channeling a non-Western type of belief, if for no other reason than it will dramatize how similar it is to every other type of belief.
DEADLINE: Can we expect our questions about Keith to be answered by the end of the first season, or are you planning for this to span longer than that?
EISENDRATH: Fingers crossed there will be more than one. I think that we are going to give the audience very clear answers about Keith, almost in every episode, and certainly I think that they will get some satisfaction by the end of the season. They can wait and see whether it’s the end of the story or not, but there will be no shortage of questions and answers regarding that mystery this season.
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