Without A Trace

You have to give credit to film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He does his best to give his various prime time series a distinct feel and look. That's certainly the case with CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; its spin-off CSI: Miami; and the drama Cold Case.

But in many ways, Without A Trace is Bruckheimer's finest video achievement. A taut, involving drama about an FBI task force that looks for missing persons, "Trace" is probably the quietest hit around. Without fanfare, and largely thanks to word of mouth, "Trace" has become the first series to give the once-formidable ER a real run for its money. One reason is that this drama, now in its second season, runs after CSI on Thursday nights, giving it a chance to pick up the spillover audience that does not want to change channels. Another reason for "Trace's" success lies with a strong formula and a fine ensemble cast. Finally, "Trace" is lucky that ER has lost much of its original cast and has taken its eye off the ball. Instead of focusing on the hospital and its patients, ER has become a drama about relationships that happen to take place in a medical setting. That has left many former fans looking for an alternative on Thursday nights. With "Trace", they found it.

Real-life stories about missing children and adults have always made headlines. Reality shows such as America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries have succeeded by portraying these cases (and in a few lucky incidents, helped get their subjects back home). In 1993, ABC aired a drama called Missing Persons. Starring Daniel J. Travanti (the former Captain Frank Furillo of Hill Street Blues), Missing Persons dealt with the same-named squad of the Chicago Police Department. But airing up against NBC's comedies and The Simpsons, Missing Persons went missing in action after February 1994; even appearances by Valerie Harper as Travanti's ex-partner didn't boost the ratings.

In 2002, Hank Steinberg felt the time was right to bring back the genre, in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy and the much-publicized disappearance of Washington DC intern Chandra Levy. CBS liked the idea, especially since the producers of their highest-rated series brought it to them.

When it debuted in September 2002, Without A Trace instantly moved into the top 20, and built an audience right from the start. By the summer of 2003, reruns of the self-contained "Trace" easily crushed the continuing drama repeats of ER. In its second season, "Trace" joined the medical saga among television's top ten. ER still has the edge among viewers and young adults, but "Trace" has closed the gap considerably, giving CBS a powerful Thursday night lineup (which includes Survivor and CSI), ending NBC's 20 year dominance of the evening.

So why are viewers fleeing the hospital in favor of an equally depressing subject? Unlike most crime dramas where the police and detectives are the center of attention, Without A Trace puts the focus on the victims. Based on the rule that if you learn WHOM the victim is in order to FIND the victim, "Trace" begins each episode with the actual disappearance, before the team begins the arduous task of finding the individual. Effective black and white flashbacks show the missing person's life before the disappearance. The story then shifts between the FBI team and the investigations with family, friends and loved ones. The questioning is tedious but necessary to put the pieces together. Like CSI, "Trace" spends very little time on the personal lives of the FBI team. That's fine. Unlike the excessive hospital bedjinks of ER (within and outside the staff), "Trace" keeps its focus on the story at hand.

Another reason for its popularity is its cast. That starts with the man who plays senior agent Jack Malone. Anthony LaPaglia, the Australian-born actor, is the perfect choice for Malone. He appeared in a number of films and was the star on the second (and last) season of Steven Bochco's Murder One; he replaced original star Daniel Benzali on the show. But before "Trace", LaPaglia was probably best-known for his Emmy-winning role as Simon Moon, the obnoxious and womanizing brother of Daphine Moon on Frasier. Fellow agents Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery); Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano); and Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close) ably assist La Paglia. Together with non-nonsense investigator Vivian Johnson (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), they form a team that works well and bring something new to the plate with each viewing.

Each episode ends with the picture and description of a real-life missing person-a stark reminder that the story may have been fiction, but the work goes on to find those who are still far away from home.

Some drama series break new ground; others tread upon its predecessors. Without A Trace manages to walk a thin line-rehash old plots with a freshness and quality that make them worth a viewer's time. If there's one word to describe this increasingly popular hit, consistency is it.

Maybe "ER's" producers should watch its competition a little more closely-stat.

Review: : Mike Spadoni

for Television Heaven