Without A Trace: season one

cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Poppy Montgomery, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Enrique Murciano, and Eric Close

creator: Hank Steinberg

992 minutes (unrated) 2002-3
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Warner DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling

You may have seen this on Channel Four TV. It’s a New York based crime drama about a team of FBI agents who investigate ‘missing persons’ cases. Like the CSI franchise, Without A Trace is distinguished from run-of-the-mill cop shows by its keen attention to detail, intriguingly sophisticated plots and its postmodernist visual flourishes. The show’s signature ‘moments of style’ (something which every new US TV drama strives for nowadays) means that its expository flashbacks are frequently performed within the present-moment scenes by digital ‘ghost’ action replays. Some agreeable main characters and first class acting from the ensemble cast, capably led by Anthony LaPaglia, ensure that Without A Trace has a popular appeal, despite the lack of compromise on engagingly conceived storylines, highly credible narrative twists, and the occasional downbeat conclusion.

Jack Malone (LaPaglia) heads the squad comprised of half-jokingly named Samantha Spade (Australian blonde Poppy Montgomery), motherly Vivian Johnson (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), over intense Danny (Enrique Murciano), and newcomer Martin (Eric Close, best known for Dark Skies). Although there’s an unavoidable sense of the programme makers covering all the gender/ethnic bases with this mixed cast, the actors work together with admirable conviction so it’s easy to ignore the target audience demographic angle, that probably influenced series’ creator Hank Steinberg, and concentrate on enjoying the show’s well above average storylines. Handy explanatory devices used by the drama’s show-and-tell mode include a ‘day of disappearance’ timeline, with info penned by hand onto a standard office whiteboard, eschewing the sort of hi-tech (frequently gruesome) montage effects favoured by CSI boffins.

Second episode, Birthday Boy, has an 11-year-old vanish, en route to a baseball game at Yankee stadium, but Jack’s team soon find there might be very good reasons for the boy to run away from home. This establishes a recurring element of Without A Trace, and explains the need for ‘profiling’ to uncover exactly why a person is missing as the surest methodology of finding them quickly. Although a few of the plots hinge on familiar crime drama villainy – such as child molesters, suspected Arab terrorists, blackmailers, there’s also several volatile domestic situations with deep dark family secrets to hide. If there’s a specific problem with this show it’s simply that the setup may eventually prove too limiting and far too repetitive, as drama, to satisfy a regular weekly audience. The programme makers do seem aware of this potential hazard, and are at pains to vary the backdrop to each new case, and they certainly aren’t hesitant in propelling an uncomplicated ‘missing person’ case into a harrowing kidnapping, or escalate a potentially violent scene into a tense siege crisis.

As with most other US TV dramas of this calibre, notable guest stars can provide an invaluable boost to viewer ratings, and this show has its fair share of names to conjure with. Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Kyle Secor, Charles Dutton, Heather Donahue, Tom Matheson, Ernie Hudson, and Talia Balsam (as Jack’s wife) are among the celeb faces worth spotting here. Behind the cameras there are some outstanding TV directors, and others with feature-film experience lending their skills to the series. David Nutter, Rachel Talalay, Peter Markle, Deran Serafian, John McNaughton, Mel Damski, and Kevin Hooks bring know-how and visual panache to key episodes.

The unrated Region 1 boxset reviewed here maintains the original aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TV, whereas the UK edition is certificate (15), and 4:3 full-frame. Specially re-edited for this DVD package, season finale, Fallout, is a “creator’s cut” of the show’s last two episodes, expanded with previously unseen footage to feature-length. Although it alternates between gripping suspense and sadly dreary soap opera clichés away from the main drama, this is a rewarding ending to season one, and it’s obvious why LaPaglia scooped the 2004 Golden Globe award for best TV actor.

DVD extras: commentary tracks on the first and last episodes plus deleted scenes filed under ‘missing evidence’. Bonus materials include featurettes The Motive – how the show was created, and Fingerprints – ‘the imprint of the designer teams’. I think it’s worth mentioning that the clumsy foldout packaging for this boxset contains only four discs, as three of these are double-sided ‘flip-discs’, requiring extra care when handling.