Rumours of difficulties with Netflix’s documentary about the Madeleine McCann case have abounded almost from the moment it was commissioned. The McCanns themselves refused to take part and asked everyone around them not to either. At one point, it was said that it was going to be cut from an eight-part series to an hour-long one-off. Then it was going to be pulled altogether. Certainly no previews were made available, and the makers did not do the usual round of pre-show publicity interviews in the press, which is never a sign of great confidence in the product.
But in the end, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann landed as a full eight-part series. Was it worth the wait? Did it confound the rumours and the doubters? No and no, not by any conceivable metric.
It was a simple retelling – in what felt almost like real time, so leadenly was it done – of the story of the three-year-old’s disappearance from the holiday resort of Praia da Luz one terrible night in May 2007. It was a blatant cash-in on the vogue for the true-crime series that have become a staple of Netflix’s output since the success of Making a Murderer a few years ago, but without any of the justifications previous works in the genre have provided. It was not the disinterment of a forgotten case, it was not the re-examination of a suspected miscarriage of justice. It offered no new facts, no new insight. It didn’t even have a point of view.
Instead, it was purely a rehashing of everything anyone who was alive at the time, or who has been of an age to understand the periodic appeals on anniversaries, birthdays and other painful dates by the McCanns for more information in the 12 years that have elapsed since, already knew. The vanishing, the panic, the initial horror and the delayed police response take up most of the first episode, and we move on from there through the searches that yield nothing, the growing media attention, the breakdown of trust between Kate and Gerry and the Portuguese police, the tenuous identification of a suspect, the sniffer dogs that throw suspicion on the parents, the magazine article that suggested a pact of silence between the McCanns and the friends they were holidaying with over the “fact” that Madeleine died in an accident while they were eating at the resort’s tapas bar 100 yards away and that they disposed of the body, on through all possible sightings, connections with other cases, the books later written, the agendas served, the legal suits that followed, and so on. All cul-de-sacs, all pointless recapping of parts of a story that still has no end.
All of it was padded out with extraneous guff – the history of the Algarve as a holiday resort, accounts from journalists of how they rushed to get to the story and then their breathless accounts of waiting for and not getting any news … The talking heads were frequently drowned out by the sound of barrel-bottoms being scraped.
It’s a feat of sort, I suppose, to create something so morally and creatively bankrupt that your viewers would gain more insight into your case if they were to sit alone in a darkened room for 10 minutes to try to fathom the depths of parental anguish then, now and for the more than a decade in between. When the urge came upon the makers to put this series together, they should have done the same. They should have spent their time wondering how the McCanns bear it, sent up a heartfelt and useless prayer that somehow, some time, answers for that suffering pair are found and that they are allowed to live out the rest of their days in either joy or, at the very least, the kind of terrible peace that comes with knowing the worst.