September 2005 marked the fourth season of Without A Trace. The CBS/Warner series about missing persons which has garnered surely and loyally a huge following on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed globally. An essential part of prime time viewing: it is intelligent, thought provoking with snippets of humour and heartache.
Without A Trace has carved up its own niche in the schedules and viewers are taken aback by its breathtaking production techniques; fast-paced action, nicely peppered with the personal lives of these our characters and actors. While it comes from the stable of Jerry Bruckheimer, serving as executive producer: it serves up a slice of investigation and nail biting stories in which the viewer can immediately involve themselves from the outset.
As Jerry Bruckheimer is also behind the equally huge and successful CSI franchise and the spin-offs, you can’t help notice the little pieces of CSI creeping in here and there; the reference to forensics, of course is essential. Inevitably certain comparisons had to be made on both shows but for the most, and certainly on my, part it’s not done in any critical way or as a put down. (I’m a fan of all the shows.) The success of each show is a testament to its merit and entertainment factor. Effective and stylish use of flashbacks; assumptions, crime scene reconstructions/enactments and suspect/witness statements getting to the crux of the current investigation. Most effective and crucial is the missing person appearing as a ghost in their apartments etc as though the team is actually there with them, or looking into a facet of their life, before they vanish: like the investigation begun in the Pilot episode and carried throughout the seasons…Pilot episode when Sam (Poppy Montgomery) watches the photo of the missing woman; Jack (Anthony LaPaglia) in Chet’s (Charles S Dutton) apartment when he cries and Viv (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in Sydney’s apartment in the season 1 finale.
Indeed there was a void crying out to be filled by such a drama series since the schedules were filled with soaps and to a large extent until much recently, sci-fi. Let's not even mention the reality shows!
First hand way in which the FBI conducts a missing person investigation. Not since Mulder and Scully has a show with an FBI theme drummed up so much interest. In fact our special agents in WAT are just as revered and well loved. No finer cast could live up to the FBI motto of Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity; than these.
Though most of the investigations covered are fictitious – some of them are based on true stories, for example the season 2 opener, The Bus. Never-the-less the stories still have a bearing on the everyday: marriage break-ups, affairs, emotional moments which end up mirroring the personal lives of the agents.
On another level some have criticized the story relating to Jack and Sam’s affair – the hints to it in the first season; finally seeing light of day in the two part season 1 finale; have been termed ‘falling into the old romantic trap’ that has been the downfall of many-a show: Moonlighting, Remington Steele. Spring to mind. However, this is counteracted by the fact the affair is already over by the time we hear about it; though their colleagues are in the same boat, re knowledge of this, only Viv knows. But this is finely balanced by Martin’s (Eric Close) immediate attraction to Sam; his jealousness when she speaks to her beaus and his feelings finally see fruition when they finally come together in the season 2 finale and ensuring season 3 where the romantic aspect comes full circle – as what started out in season 1 with Jack and Sam’s secret affair now translates/turns into Martin and Sam’s secret.
The affair may have played a significant part in Jack’s marriage break-up to his wife, Maria (Talia Balsam) it’s not entirely conclusive. Contributing to this is the element of work – his work and this plays an important part too. The number of hours he puts into the job, 24:7 have all had an impact too. Though to be fair, Maria, being a lawyer, isn’t exactly a 9-5 occupation either.
WAT deals with the missing persons section of the FBI and focuses on a team of 5 special agents assigned to such cases: Jack Malone, the leader; Vivian Johnson, Samantha Spade, Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano) and Martin Fitzgerald, the new agent. Each one comes from a different background, bringing with them a multitude of mindsets and skills; to utilize their knowledge and experiences in ensuring the missing person is located quickly.
This knowledge includes investigative methods: of checking financial records, phone records as well as the vital use of psychological profiling to get to know the missing person’s private and personal life, public appearances. In short, their entire background. Nothing about their life is omitted: every question needs to be asked and answered, no matter how personal or irrelevant it appears – it’s the little things that add up into the whole. From this they can ascertain whether they’re looking at an abductee, a disappearance, a run away, a murder or someone who’s just dropped out of the rat race. In the words of Jack, “you have to get to know the victim,” so they can determine where to look for them. In order to do this, the team constructs a Day of Disappearance (DOD) timeline: crucial details outlining the missing person’s movements on the day they disappeared. Sometimes this time line extends to 2 days before disappearing (DBD) or even months before. This way if there’s any blank spaces to be filled between the DODs, they may be a key to explaining why or how they vanished.
The show was not meant to be about characters: the personal lives revolved around the cases but as the series progressed, this is exactly what has happened. Soundbites and snippets of information about personal problems, emotions, how a case is more closer to home at times than others. Part of the work envisages who they really are. There’s also an element of procedure; the show is procedural. Let’s face it – how many of us will actually get to see the intricate workings of an elite FBI taskforce, short of joining the real FBI (in which case you need to be a US citizen.) As Poppy says, “as the show progresses all the characters are developing more and more. It is a procedural show but the writers are so good that they’re managing to work more and more character into it. I think it’s a good balance.”
Eric on his co-stars says: “We all have a great chemistry….this is a different type of show though. It’s less about the relationships of the characters and more about finding the missing person. But they don’t focus on the interaction between the characters as much, we’re interacting but we’re talking about case information and personality profiles less than peoples’ relationships. We have touched on that Martin and Sam have been in a romantic relationship but that’s clearly the focal point of the show.”
There was sometimes closure for the fans, involving the missing person being found, alive, sadly dead or sometimes in between. It was different too, in that on occasion there was no clear cut conclusion or resolution, thus leaving the stories on a loose thread where the missing person remained missing for obvious reasons such as starting over. Bigamist husband; where the suspect escaped justice season 2 ep Doppelganger (only to get their comeuppance in season 3 Doppelganger 2 or the excellent Two Families which told the ever-questionable story of whether the death penalty should be abolished, let alone maintained in it’s unusual, unjust and cruel form. Given the flaws of the criminal justice system, ranging from incompetent counsel; judge’s misdirection to the jury, wanting to deliver a swift verdict and reliance upon accomplice testimony. This episode ended on a cliff-hanger so we never knew if the telephone rang or not, symbolizing a death knell! Even to episodes which overstepped the boundaries of Federal law in Underground Railroad dealing with the run away victims of domestic violence.
Though sometimes predictable in its approach, it never falters in impressing: concentrating on real life cases as well as the real world: political: the events of 9/11 and fallout from this in the season 1 episode In Extremis and the season 1 finale, Fall Out. How an innocent man can find himself a suspected terroris; a victim of circumstance. The legal: death penalty, immigration and social shortcomings: peer pressure, bullying, foster care, the school system, the have/have not divide. Regardless of the inequalities in societies and backgrounds, each victim was treated fairly on an individual basis, irrespective of race etc.
The show was applauded in earning a Golden Globe in 2004 for its main star Anthony LaPaglia, as well as an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in September 2004.The Pilot episode earned 21 million viewers, rating second across all households and broke the record by being the first drama to beat ER in the ratings. Some thought it doomed as it aired against this show too.
Rightly earning its top spot in the ratings, the Pilot episode dealt with a successful, missing career woman and quickly paved the way for dealing with a number of topics and varied underlying reasons for her disappearance, laying down the basic premises of time lines and getting to know the ‘victim’; thereby leading to them being found. It also contained no end of suspects and was funny in that each of the 5 team members had their own views of her disappearance and which of the endless array of suspects was behind it.
The Pilot also emphasized the time within which the missing person was to be found: 51 hours, though extended to 72 in other episodes. After that the chances of being found alive or at all, were slim. Add to this the characters own take on the story; sometimes being being closer to them than they’d like to admit and especially not to each other.
Comments Eric Close: “…Without A Trace happened to get stuck into a timeslot with a great lead-in [ from CSI] but also the fact that ER was coming to the end of its run. I think timing is important, that has a lot to do with it. It’s the number one show [CSI] on TV and considering the habits of television viewers, when thy like a show I think sometimes they’ll stick around and see what’s coming up next…produced by Jerry Bruckheimer’s company; this company produces good work and so I think people at least were willing to tune in and give it a chance and see what they thought. I think we probably did even better than they expected numberwise. I think they were hoping that we would do well, but I think that we’ve done more than well. I think we’ve exceeded peoples’ expectations, no question.”