A blonde, white, well-dressed woman walks into her apartment building and literally fades off the screen as the voice of FBI Senior Agent Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia) explains that a 28-year-old marketing executive Maggie Cartwright (Arija Bareikis) hasn’t been seen since she walked into her elevator yesterday evening. As Malone and his Missing Persons Squad reconstruct Maggie’s actions leading up to her disappearance, she fades in and out: one minute, she is happily talking on the phone, the next, the room is empty.
In today’s U.S., such dramatic visual effects remind viewers that Without a Trace feeds on the hysterical atmosphere of a country perennially “on alert.” Indeed, the recent spate of missing children stories has provided a sort of free advertising for the series. (The number of kidnappings is actually down, while the media coverage of them has gone up.) As the agents establish a timeline on a white dry-erase board in their Manhattan office, they mimic the media’s painstaking, minute-by-minute reconstructions of events leading to a child’s kidnapping, say, or the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. Of all new crime dramas, it seems that this one reflects the current emotional state of U.S. politics most immediately.
At the same time, the show’s first scenes reveal that the squad members are efficient professionals with the usual assembly of investigative tools at their disposal. Quickly, they determine that Maggie left her purse, wallet, and keys at home, and locate all the people pictured in her home photos. The astute Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery) interviews members of the family, together with Malone. The rookie, Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close), finds emails to Maggie’s lover on her computer. Danny Taylor (Enrique Merciano) interrogates a hostile suspect who sold her cocaine. He also discovers from security camera footage when Maggie sneaked out of her home that night. And Vivian Johnson (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) tracks credit cards and phone calls, learning that Maggie liquidated her assets just days before.
Each member has enough to do and enough lines in the pilot for Taylor and Johnson to appear integral to the story, not just token Hispanic and black agents on the team. The squad dispels worry because it functions as a reliable, well-oiled machine.
As it reassures, the show cozies up to viewers. Malone uses kitchen-sink psychological profiling that is presumably accessible to “ordinary” people. After interviewing Maggie’s mother, father, colleagues, and her two lovers, he concludes that she engaged in self-invention (don’t we all?): “Every new person we talk to, we see a different Maggie.” And he declares that Maggie’s boss is gay because he “checked out” Fitzgerald. The rookie provides an excuse for Malone to serve up “realistic” details of how the Missing Persons unit operates. Malone explains to Fitzgerald and the audience professional acronyms, such as “DOD” for “day of disappearance” — the 24 hours before the person was declared missing. He also informs him, “In most cases, after 48 hours, they are gone.”
Unlike many other current cop dramas, Without a Trace tries to create a personal connection between the audience and down-to-earth TV characters coping with mundane problems as well as spectacular wrongdoing. Usually episodic detective shows concentrate on the details of the mystery of the week and barely develop investigators’, victims’, and perpetrators’ personal lives. In C.S.I., also produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the protagonist is the fragmented material evidence rather than people. Conversely, Without a Trace considers how the missing person lives and thinks, in some depth.
Unfortunately, so far, the persons missing and eliciting viewers’ compassion seem to be white and well-off — in the next episode an 11-year-old white boy disappears on his way to his birthday celebration at Yankee Stadium. The detectives, while commenting on the case, also end up revealing more of their own lives at the outset, including boyfriends, sleeping patterns, and personal rivalries.
Not that the show lacks mystery and suspense. The pilot had a fast pace and inventive conclusion. It turned out that Maggie was kidnapped by an unlikely suspect, her firm’s computer specialist, who sends a ransom note with “proof of life” to her parents. Fitzgerald dashes — by himself — to a suspect’s house and almost gets himself and the victim killed. But all ends well, thanks to the squad’s professionalism.
These events seem safely managed and contained at the same time that they are exciting, because the show includes familiar plot elements and references to classical U.S. popular culture. Samantha Spade’s name is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. And much like crime shows on late 1940s radio and tv used to do, this one ended with a profile of a real missing person. This true-crime coda harks back to the times when the broadcasting code demanded that even reality-based shows, such as Dragnet and Gang Busters, present law-breaking as a rare (mostly white) aberration, rather than a perpetual black and immigrant menace next door like in today’s America’s Most Wanted. The public service announcement, then and (I think) now, seeks to demonstrate informed cooperation between the public, the lawmen, and the media.
The word “informed” is key here. Even if, as CBS promises, some Without a Trace episodes will end “unhappily,” they will always provide conclusive “scientific” answers, unlike tv reports of real kidnappings. To be sure, the show in many ways simply applies the popular tv formula for detached scientific crime fighting to newsworthy missing persons cases. But fictional facts are better than no proof at all. There is something comforting in detectives painstakingly checking the evidence before launching arrests, when real publicized manhunts (after three “terrorist” medical students in Miami this September, for example) can be based on no material evidence whatsoever. Insofar as it depicts agents who think and verify before acting, Without a Trace unexpectedly provides an antidote to the current media crime-fighting frenzy.