CBS’ “Without a Trace” has franchise written all over it. Sleek and satisfying, Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest is a compelling drama that takes auds on a swift ride alongside the FBI as it investigates the missing. The resolutions may sometimes be forced and the characterizations thin, but each episode still has a rhythm and a finality which brings to mind the exec producer’s “CSI” (which airs before it) in terms of ensemble performances and crimefighting handiwork. The timeslot is tricky — it goes head to head with “ER” — but after this debut, the Eye web really will have shaped a terrific Thursday of its own.
Bruckheimer has obviously taken note of high-profile cop skeins that failed (“Murder One,” “Big Apple”), realizing that viewers don’t always want connecting plots and heavy discourse blanketed over long periods of time. However acclaimed that approach may be, “Trace,” like “CSI,” is simple, fast-food television that may not linger but crackles with mystery. It’s formulaic television with a great formula: Take a crime, create some hunches, dust a few fingerprints and a perp will emerge.
Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) heads the a Manhattan team whose job it is to find people by using profiling techniques. Squad includes attractive and assertive Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery), detailed and driven Vivian Johnson (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), intense Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano), and novice Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close), a looker who has transferred over from the white-collar division.
Malone and company reconstruct a “day of disappearance” timeline that examines the 24 hours prior to a specific person’s vanishing — knowing that after 48 hours, odds are he has either been murdered or committed suicide. Night one focuses on Maggie Cartwright (Arija Bareikis), a drug-using beauty who scores blow from her doorman, sleeps with a married colleague, befriends a nerdy computer technician and once dated and international millionaire. Crew has to decide whether she staged her own kidnapping — she had financial motive — or was taken.
All of her close and recent acquaintances, then, become suspects, and Malone’s cast gives them the third degree. And while the first episode, directed by David Nutter and written by “RFK” scribe Hank Steinberg, doesn’t hide its hand, show should have no problem with intrigue because of three key elements: each victim’s backstory — their habits and hobbies; the actual inquisitions; and the efforts by which the squad unearths minutiae.
For all of its strengths — the puzzles, the prep — the personalities could improve. LaPaglia should stop brooding and find a more likable trait than solemn machismo; Montgomery, who played Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde,” seems, at first, there due to her looks; and Jean-Baptiste doesn’t much hide a British accent as she’s still finding her way.
Tech credits are sound across the board, with Peter Levy’s in-your-face lensing and Stephen Mark’s sharp editing giving weight to the intriguing study sessions. Considering “Trace” takes place in New York, execs should have left the confines of L.A. soundstages behind.