In some ways, taking over showrunning duties from someone else — rather than calling the shots from the beginning — takes a unique skill.
One needs to keep another person’s vision alive while making sure the show doesn’t falter, and renew and replenish what has become familiar. For CBS’ “Without a Trace,” that task has fallen to Jan Nash and Greg Walker, who took over last December.
“Without a Trace” is now in its fifth season, but Nash and Walker have been there since season one, breaking stories, writing scripts and performing various other tasks under the aegis of series creator Hank Steinberg and executive producer Ed Redlich. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the torch was passed to them.
“It’s not like we sat in the dugout and hadn’t played,” Walker explains. “Hank and Ed had been very generous, and when they realized they couldn’t kill us, they figured they’d promote us.”
Joking aside, Walker and Nash clearly have the talent to carry the series forward. They also possess something especially valuable to a show that prizes continuity — an institutional memory. And though Redlich has left the series, moving on to exec produce “Shark,” Steinberg still keeps an eye on “Without a Trace,” even as he tends to “The Nine,” his latest creation for Warner Bros. and ABC.
“Hank monitors from afar,” Walker says. “He’s like Dick Chaney in the bunker, always present but not often seen. He gives us notes from time to time. To his credit, he’s made this transition as easy as possible. He doesn’t second-guess us.”
Why would he? By their own admission, Nash and Walker haven’t messed with success.
“Our job was to take a cruise ship out on the open sea and keep it going,” Walker says, “and I think we’ve managed to do that by focusing on the primacy of the missing-persons story and the importance of secrets.”
The pair’s main challenge has been to bring fresh plots to a series whose format is fairly rigid. “We have an expression around here: Bend it, don’t break it,” Nash says. “We’ve tried to perpetuate that.”
Their approach has been to shift the series’ focus, ever so slightly, back to character-based stories.
“We’ve had years that have been more focused on the procedural mysteries,” Nash says. “What Greg and I have done is return to a balance that was successful in the middle years of the series. Too much focus on mysteries robs audiences of the characters’ stories. Too much focus on the characters’ stories robs people of the puzzles.”
For Nash, the secret of the series’ longevity lies in its flashbacks, which exist in every episode, vividly propelling the plot both backward and forward. “It’s the genius of the show, besides the casting,” she says. “You’re not being told plot points; you’re seeing it happen in the present. That device sets us apart.”
The duo had never met before “Without a Trace.” Nash wrote for “Ellen” in a former life, and Walker had worked on “The X-Files.”
“Greg is the brother I never had,” Nash says. “He makes me laugh every single day.” Walker has similar praise for Nash. “Jan has always been the hidden secret of this show,” he says. “She keeps our eyes on the prize: the emotional journey of the missing persons and our agents.”
But just because they’re quick to praise each other doesn’t mean they always agree. “We have just enough differences for creative tension,” Nash says.
Walker concurs. “We disagree regularly,” he says. “but we play a concessionary game.”
The result, both say, is a work environment in which collaboration and creativity are equally prized.
“We want to be the ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ of dramas: a happy place to work,” Walker says.