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Without A Trace: Season 1 Review

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High quality police procedure formatted crime drama

★★★★

Jerry Bruckheimer’s inevitable extension of the CSI formula, this kidnap drama quickly eclipsed its forensically minded forbears and currently ranks as the most efficient and entertaining example of a police procedure show since the early days of Law And Order.

One of the few recent American imports to be given a proper platform by the increasingly erratic Channel 4, Without A Trace should be familiar to US drama wonks, but for the uninitiated, the premise is pleasingly straightforward. People go missing, Jack Malone’s (Anthony LaPaglia) FBI unit tracks them down by retracing their recent history, a secret life/hidden history is uncovered, people — or sometimes bodies — are found. Next!

Engineered with all the precision of a surface-to-air missile, it’s built to survive in a crowded US marketplace. The fundamentals remain unaltered in every episode — the clock counting off hours missing as the heli-camera menaces the New York skyline, the red lines marking an ever-expanding clues map on a white board, the treated film stock demarcating yet another flashback revelation.

The FBI unit itself is carefully composed of discrete demographic units — a black woman, a pretty blonde, two young Turks, a grizzled leader — just varied enough to create the requisite tension, both professional and sexual. The principals are neatly sketched and enjoy minor arcs, but ‘homelife’ never mounts a serious challenge to this week’s case in the battle for screentime.

Even a foolproof modus operandi can become repetitive, but although Without A Trace eschews the wholly unexpected shocks that distinguish the most daring HBO dramas, it never sits still long enough for any of the tics to become irritating. Brisk, effortless editing keeps all the characters in play as the mystery moves inexorably towards a surprising solution.

It would be merely interesting rather than involving were it not for the show’s beating heart: LaPaglia’s Jack Malone. Underused in movies, LaPaglia’s grounded nobility and softly spoken charisma make him a perfect leading man for television and elevate his stock character — an uncompromising, incorruptible boss — to the pantheon of great TV cops.

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