Without a Trace

Monday, April 19, 2004 by

Whilst we in Britain suffer the lamentably lame Murder in Suburbia and endure the dubious viewing pleasure of watching the risible Murder City, Jerry Bruckenheimer would appear to waging a one-man executive producer war to deliver as many quality police dramas on American television as he possibly can. Not content with the utterly superb CSI : Crime Scene Investigation and its scintillating spin-off CSI : Miami, Bruckenheimer now delivers the stunning Without A Trace, a fast paced procedural drama (© every listings review in town) which, perhaps, stands as his finest achievement – to date. Cold Case is, after all, waiting in the wings for our delight and deliberation.

Formulaic though it may be – both in narrative and stylistically – it is wholly compelling nonetheless. Without A Trace does not seek to break new dramatic ground or slyly copy one of its many predecessors. It takes the simple but well-worn concept of tracking down a missing person and gently manages to massage new life into this long established, but somewhat redundant, genre. Elements of Without A Trace are particularly noticeable in Murder City – timelining for instance – and one can only hope that the producers of that vehicle (and a number of others, if truth be told) sit down and carefully study Without A Trace to see how it should be done properly.

In the United States, this show was pitched against the mighty behemoth that is ER and has become the first to really cause it to bleed viewers. This could be attributed to ER turning from fast-paced, gripping medical drama to a so-so relationship soap-opera (to a certain degree, anyway) but the truth is that Without A Trace has built upon its foundations impressively and adheres rigidly to the formula that has served it well thus far. Most importantly of all though, the ensemble cast have bedded in immediately and genuinely appear to have a vibrant onscreen chemistry that serves only to visually underline the innate sense of dynamism that permeates the show.

Headed by the quite, quite wonderful Anthony LaPaglia – an actor who does world weariness to a wholly exceptional degree and facially has a range of expressions that make him the Mr Bean of serious actors – this is a uniformly excellent cast that produces a level of consistency that harks back to the golden era of Hill Street Blues. LaPaglia as the senior agent, Jack Malone, radiates an aura of emotional vulnerability that is rarely seen on a crime drama and his performance is the focal point for this show. Backed up by the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who plays the altogether more circumspect, emotionally tough Vivian Johnson, they make for, potentially, one of the great double acts on the small screen. It may be clichéd – man/woman, black/white, emotional/rational – but the manner in which these two actors portray the relationship is nothing short of brilliant.

Whereas both the British Murders (City and Suburbia) completely failed to frame the relationships between their two main characters – even their names were twee and asinine to point of ludicrousness – Without A Trace has succinctly translated a working relationship onto our screens without a hitch. It is a relationship that, already, has depth and tangibility, and one that is entirely believable. These two are ably backed by the trio of Special Agents Spade, Taylor and Fitzgerald, played respectively by Poppy Montgomery, Enrique Murciano and Eric Close – can you see the blue-collar ethos of the characters’ names? None of your Scribbs or Alembic nonsense here! – and all five form the Missing Persons Squad of the FBI.

Without A Trace is never, though, about the team – it is always about the victim. The simple rule is that you learn who the victim is in order to find them. Simple but so, so effective. Without A Trace starts each and every episode with, in flashback, the disappearance of the victim and from then on it focuses in on the mundane, the routine, and the procedure as the team investigates the disappearance. Rarely do the private lives of the squad impact on the investigation. When it does, it is always in terms of simple dialogue, a line or two perhaps, but there is still enough in the sentences uttered to speak volumes. This is especially true of Malone whom it seems has his crosses to bear but LaPaglia, with but one line to utter, can convey emotional depth and subtlety like a sledgehammer. Indeed, as the episodes and the weeks subsequently pass, we slowly – but surely – learn a little bit more about each and every character. This is wonderful writing – clever, astute and on the money.

This particular episode of the show, “There Goes The Bride”, managed to include kidnap, blackmail, extortion, child abuse, incest, murder and attempted murder within its allotted hour. And it did so with exemplary style thanks to the entire cast and the brilliant writing. Without A Trace also manages to encompass the morality of the scenarios that it deals with. Thus, tonight, we had opinions, treatises and pronouncements on drug use, rehabilitation, sexual predators, child abuse and, most impressively of all, a moving scene with Johnson and the wife of a child abuser which wonderfully deconstructed the concept of knowingness. This was all carried out within the confines of the show and it simply added to the viewing experience.

For me, Without A Trace is the best drama on TV at the moment. At times, it can be harrowing viewing – one of the episodes (“Suspect”) touched, chillingly, on a level of evil and, specifically, the performances of LaPaglia and Conor O’Farrell (as a paedophile headmaster) were breathtaking but never mawkish. Other episodes have produced the goods, most notably “Hang On To Me” in which Charles S Dutton conjured up one of the all-time great small screen performances as Chet Collins, for which he should be honoured. This was the portrayal of a man who was not so much close to the edge but dangling in the abyss and hanging on by his fingernails. Dutton was incredible and the rapport between him and LaPaglia was electric. This episode hit a high point that was outstanding and raised the bar as far as police/crime dramas are concerned.

Every aspect of Without A Trace, at the moment, works and long may it continue. Captained by LaPaglia and managed by Bruckenheimer, this is one to team that could go the season unbeaten.


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