Without a Trace

FBI Agent Jack Malone’s (Anthony LaPaglia) life has taken a definite turn for the worse this past year. His wife left him and engaged him in a bitter custody battle, which he lost. His son-of-a-bitch father (recurring guest Martin Landau) has Alzheimer’s. And during last season’s finale, his senior agent, Vivian (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), underwent emergency heart surgery, and two other agents were caught in a hail of gunfire while stopped at a red light.

In one of those “He didn’t get out of the cockadoody car” moments that frequently follow cliffhangers, Danny (Enrique Murciano) emerged unharmed, if shaken, but his partner Martin (Eric Close) was in critical condition. That left Malone with one functioning agent, Samantha (Poppy Montgomery), to investigate the case.

But regular viewers of Without a Trace know Malone needs no help. He fits the mold of all of producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s lead detectives: a conflicted, sanctimonious, and brilliant investigator, backed by a fiercely loyal crew, willing to bend rules when they get in the way of justice. Bruckheimer brought to this old formula updated special effects, mood lighting, and attention to gruesome details. When someone on these shows gets shot, you see the bullet close-up as it travels through the body.

Each week, Trace opens with a look at the last few minutes of a person’s life before he or she goes missing. Malone and company then work backwards to reconstruct the events leading to the disappearance. Flashbacks replay relevant scenes from the missing’s life, providing clues that must be fit together like a jigsaw puzzle on a blackboard timeline. This repeatable structure and grisly nature of the crimes have made Trace a ratings hit, scheduled against the aging heavyweight ER.

The format suffers from the usual one for Bruckheimer shows: the investigations process, designed to showcase the crew each week, is unbelievable. The crew does everything, without need of detectives, beat cops, or prosecuting attorneys. When they do consult local police or federal agents, such as the Homeland Security agents featured in this season’s premiere, for the most part, such input is useless. Though Malone’s office is constantly swarming with anonymous agents, none is ever brought in to assist, no matter how complex and taxing the case. Still, Trace is more honest than many crime series, in that not all cases have happy endings. The primary agents are often too late to save the missing or realize that the missing is alive but better off wherever he or she has landed than back at home. These difficult cases wear on the detectives, but not for long.

In a Bruckheimer series, the investigation is the star. Agents may go through blue periods, but the series isn’t much concerned with their emotional depths. Trace does delve into the personal lives of its agents more than the CSIs, but the results are not good. Last season’s worst episodes focused more on Jack’s personal struggles than on the case at hand, most notably one where he dreamed his 71-year-old self was the missing person he was trying to find.

This season has resolved some issues left hanging last season. Jack appears to have reconciled himself to the loss of his kids, although he was never involved in their lives to begin with. Vivian and Martin are both back on the job, and the team will soon have a new member, Elena (Roselyn Sanchez). Teasers reveal she has a past with one of the detectives. Meanwhile, Danny continues to struggle with the shooting he survived, keeping his distance from his partner. The groundwork for this year’s personal story arcs is being laid out within these first episodes.

Danny’s storyline is too underdeveloped to have credibility. In the new season’s second episode, Malone chastises him for trying to talk down a young teen who has his finger on the detonator of a bomb. Jack considers the efforts reckless, warning Danny to “get it together.” However, the boy was in the center of a dark lunchroom. By the time Danny came across him, it was too late to back out. What other options were open to him? Quite possibly, Jack’s reaction indicates his own concerns in putting his agents in harm’s way, shortly after almost losing three of them. This bodes well for another year of internal chaos for the detective.

Fortunately, Trace still presents interesting cases. The young boy with the bomb, Ryan (Shane Haboucha), is driven to his act of desperation out of a paranoia stemming from 9/11. Although the show has used 9/11 as a catalyst for their missing’s disappearance before, this episode explored how the event caused some survivors to develop “Mean World Syndrome,” in which overexposure to negative input creates a false perception regarding the amount of danger in the world. It is easy to feel sympathy for Ryan and hope for his safe return to his family (he ends up in custody); however, the show validates his fear by making him a victim of bullying, betrayal, and torture. For Ryan, it is a mean world.

It is possible for crime dramas to blend police work and personal story arcs successfully (NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues are prime examples). However, Trace has waited too late to try to make viewers care about its characters in a new way. We know these agents as masterminds of mystery-solving; anything that distracts from that perception undermines the strongest asset, exploring why and how some people vanish.