`Trace' indicates CBS has a clue

Solid cast gives show some potential

Fall TV

September 26, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If there is one new network drama that looks as if it might connect with a deeper current of feeling running through the culture these days, it is Without a Trace, a CBS series starring Anthony LaPaglia as chief of the FBI's Missing Persons Squad. After a week of way too many new series that illustrate how knuckleheaded network television can be, Without a Trace is a welcome reminder of how relevant prime-time drama can feel when the producers get even some of it right.

One of the things they get right in terms of drama involves borrowing some of the sensibility of 24, last year's freshman sensation with Kiefer Sutherland as the head of a government agency trying to thwart a political assassination. Without a Trace isn't actually told in real time the way 24 is, but the sense of a clock tick-tick-ticking permeates every frame.

Not only are the first 24 hours after a person goes missing crucial to the success or failure of any investigation, the first thing the squad does in every case is reconstruct a DOD (day of disappearance) timeline for the 24 hours up to the disappearance. In tonight's pilot, a 28-year-old fast-track marketing executive seems to vanish off the face of the Earth one night, and the sense of mystery about not only her disappearance but also her life is heightened with each bit of information gleaned by the squad as they simultaneously track her last 24 hours and run down leads.

The other thing this series does right involves the makeup and casting of the squad. Like 24, which anchored itself on the rock-solid foundation of Sutherland, Without a Trace also has an actor with both talent and presence at its center in LaPaglia, who plays Senior Agent Jack Malone.

LaPaglia is not quite in Sutherland's league when it comes to filling the screen, but he has a better supporting cast, especially in Poppy Montgomery as Agent Samantha Spade. (OK, the character's name is a little obvious.) From a brilliant off-beat supporting performance as a psycho fiancee in Tom Fontana's The Beat, to a wonderful turn as Marilyn Monroe in the miniseries Blonde, Montgomery is building one of the best resumes in television. While not spectacular, her work in the first two episodes of Without a Trace is rock solid. Eric Close, who plays the newest member of the team, is also a nice choice by the producers.

But the best thing about Without a Trace might be its timing - coming along at a time when a child sadly seems to go missing almost every day, with some of the investigations playing out for months in headlines and on 24-hour cable news channels. This summer, you couldn't turn on a local newscast without seeing parents talking about their fear that their children might be kidnapped. There is an anxiety and concern in the land, no doubt about it.

And it's not just children who go missing, as the recent stories about the disappearance of Bison Dele (a onetime University of Maryland basketball player last seen on a sailboat near Tahiti) attest. Such reports can often be the grist of fascinating murder mysteries.

But sometimes the person is missing by choice. That kind of case, in a weird way, also taps into one of the dominant narratives of the new television season: starting over. Agent Malone and his team are there to see to it that you don't make a new start without offering some explanation and fulfillment of obligation to those left behind.

Without a Trace is an engaging and resonant adult drama, which means it is just the kind of series that should rate a rave, except for one thing. There is a decided drop in quality between the pilot and episode two, which features an 11-year-old boy being separated from his father in the subway. I worry about that kind of quick decline.

One other worry I have about its future: The CBS series airs opposite ER on NBC, a lineup spot from which a lot of shows have vanished without a trace. On the other hand, they didn't have CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for what seems like a perfect fit of a hit lead-in.

Without a Trace airs at 10 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

`Morning' mess

Good Morning Miami is the sitcom that NBC is betting will hold viewers from the time Will & Grace ends at 9:30 until ER begins at 10. I think it is bad bet.

Jake Silver (Mark Feuerstein) is a male version of Mary Richards, a young, bright, well-intentioned producer who comes to a local television station to fix a mess of a morning talk show. After screening two episodes, I can't tell you if Silver will or won't succeed.

But I can tell you I don't care whether he does or not, and that means Good Morning Miami is probably beyond being saved - even by the considerable talents of its creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, of Will & Grace.

Good Morning Miami premieres at 9:30 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

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