We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '02: CSI: Without the Title

A couple of years ago, CBS trotted out a little-hyped, barely anticipated series about a team of Las Vegas-based forensics investigators. The folks at the One-Eye Network thought so highly of this new series, they shunted it off to Friday night and gave it two simple orders: don't hemorrhage too many viewers from the sure-to-be-a-hit remake of The Fugitive and don't depress the ratings for the terrifically successful Nash Bridges. Do that, CBS executives explained to the producers of that lightly regarded show -- a little crime-solving drama by the name of CSI -- and maybe we'll keep you around for a full-season. Maybe.

Two years later, The Fugitive is as lasting as a fever dream. The only place you'll find Nash Bridges these days is on basic cable, and only if you're an insomniac or unemployed. And CSI? It did all right for itself -- if you consider monster ratings, a handful of Emmy nominations, and a Thursday night time-slot where it regularly punches NBC's once-vaunted Must-See lineup square in the mouth all right.

It is safe to say that nobody -- not you, not me, and certainly not the programming wizards under CBS's employ -- anticipated this kind of success. But just because the suits at CBS have no earthly clue why CSI has become the most-watched drama in the country, they didn't rise to their current position by not knowing what to do when a hit show presents itself. And that is, slap the series on top of the ol' Xerox machine, and hold down the "copy" key until you lose sensation in your index finger.

The first attempt at recapturing lightning in a bottle -- CSI: Miami -- is a no-bones-about-it clone, from its stylized extreme zooms right on down to its theme music re-appropriated from The Who. That's where the similarities to the original end. Whether or not you've cast your lot with the original CSI -- and I may have mentioned once or twice that it's not my bag -- it's a well-constructed series with engaging storylines and solid performances from top to bottom. CSI: Miami, on the other hand, is an ungodly mess. Other writers more talented and better spoken on these issues than myself have already picked over CSI: Miami's bones, pointing out its many flaws and shortcomings. I'll just reiterate that CSI: The Sequel fails because it forsakes CSI: Original Recipe's all-out science geekery and zest for evidence-gathering -- really, the show's central appeal -- in favor of a character-driven approach. And when those characters are David Caruso, barking orders in a low, soothing voice to his scurrying lackeys, and Kim Delaney, contorting her face in a variety of tics to constantly blubber about her dead husband, you wind up with a knockoff that falls well short of the real McCoy.

And the funny thing is, if CBS wanted a CSI carbon-copy to capture the hearts, minds and eyeballs of the original's behemoth-sized audience, it had a much better procedural drama elsewhere on its schedule to bear the CSI imprimatur. Even odder, that show is on right after CSI on Thursday nights.

Without A Trace doesn't exactly break new ground with its storyline -- FBI agents investigate missing persons cases in New York. Then again, CSI hasn't exactly blazed a new narrative trail with "Grissom and his team solve crimes." But in the same way that CSI has managed to take a well-worn idea and produce some consistently involving stories, on Without A Trace, the stock premise works. And in ways that CSI: Miami can only dream of, in its wildest, rum-fueled fantasies.

It starts with the writing, of course. Granted, it's early in the show's run, but for the first three episodes at least, Without A Trace has managed to keep things compelling, without resorting to the maudlin tricks and overwrought gimmickry you might associate with the missing-persons genre. The show's writers also keep you guessing -- a seemingly straightforward case about a boy who got lost on his way to a Yankees game evolved from a child abduction case to a potential runaway situation to an adopted kid seeking out his birth parent, who turned out to be a sex predator using the Internet to lure adoptees across state lines. The clues were peppered throughout the episode, so that when the case finally jelled, it made perfect sense to viewers instead of coming across like a pat solution the writers thought up so that the case could be wrapped up in an hour and the local evening news wouldn't have to be pre-empted.

They take evidence very seriously on Without A Trace. Unlike in CSI: Miami -- where the producers have made Caruso's Horatio Caine character so omniscient, you suspect that he's solved the case in the first five minutes of the program and merely strings us along so he can collect a full episode's paycheck -- the characters on Without A Trace spend time piecing together a case. Sometimes, the evidence leads to a dead end. Sometimes -- like in the missing kid episode -- it leads the investigation in a whole new direction. Wherever the evidence takes you, you end up feeling rewarded for paying attention. And watching fallible characters sort their way through a case is eminently more satisfying than sitting back as unerring automatons solve yet another mystery with machinelike precision.

To date, Without A Trace hasn't invested much time in detailing the private lives of its characters. But that's not to say the show hasn't paid any attention to character development. It's there -- it just happens to be under the surface, revealing itself over time. We've learned in drips and drabs that head of the investigation team, Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia), doesn't have the most picturesque of homelifes. In the most recent episode -- a case involving a troubled marriage and an unfaithful wife who goes missing -- Malone seemed especially bothered. We learn at the end of the episode, in an almost offhanded way, that his own wife has left him. It was the kind of subtle moment you don't often see on network television -- certainly not on CSI: Miami, where we found out -- courtesy of some especially clunky expository dialogue -- that Delaney's character had been recently widowed within five minutes of her first appearance on camera.

Without A Trace can get away with nuance, thanks to the efforts of a very talented cast. LaPaglia, who strikes all the right notes as Malone, heads the cast list, but he doesn't devour all the screen time. The proceedings are divvied up nearly equally among the entire ensemble -- Eric Close, last seen on the doomed Now and Again and solid here; Poppy Montgomery, who has been simply stellar in the opening episodes; the always engaging Marianne Jean-Baptiste; and Enrique Murciano, who may be turning in some of the best work on the show. Whether he's squaring off against Close's character, a newcomer to the squad, or intimidating a suspect into cooperating, Murciano infuses his role with the kind of energy you normally find among the best crime dramas.

That's not to say Without A Trace has joined the ranks of those best crime dramas -- not yet anyhow. But it shows the kind of promise that CSI showed out of the gate two years ago. Like that series, Without A Trace doesn't reinvent the narrative wheel; then again, it doesn't really need to. What it does do is tell an interesting story and tell it in an interesting way. Most shows on the air today would be lucky to say the same thing. And in a season where basic competence is beyond the reach of most programs -- and yes, we're including a certain South Florida-based crime series in that number -- Without A Trace's overall quality is deserving of a parade and a chorus of joyous hosannas.

At any rate, CBS should certainly drop all pretense and stamp Without A Trace with the CSI seal of approval. If the network does, might I suggest a theme song off of the Who's Next LP?


TeeVee - About Us - Archive - Where We Are Now

Got a comment? Mail us at teevee@teevee.org.

* * *