Reviews

Without a Trace

Michael Abernethy

The 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.


Without a Trace

Airtime: Thursdays, 10 pm EST
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Poppy Montgomery, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Enrique Murciano, Eric Close
Display Artist: Jerry Bruckheimer, Ed Redlich, Jonathan Littman
Network: CBS
Creator: Jonathan Littman
Amazon

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image