“Must See TV” is a relative concept these days. NBC claims the title, but CBS is giving the peacock a reason to ruffle its feathers. Now, with “ER” on its last legs, CBS has the opportunity to apply the stranglehold. “Without a Trace,” a flawed but promising new drama, could be the final leg in CBS’ road to Thursday night domination.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of CBS
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By focusing the FBI Missing Person’s Squad, “Without a Trace” offers viewers a compelling premise. Unlike “Law & Order” and “CSI,” there’s no dead body; here, the agents have to track down the victim by reconstructing the past 24 hours of his or her life. Having little physical evidence to work with, the squad fills in time gaps by interviewing those who last saw the missing person. If this burden wasn’t great enough, the investigators must also determine whether a crime was even committed – some victims disappear by choice or commit suicide.

Within these confines, “Without a Trace” operates like a well-oiled machine. The show is fast-paced and almost frantic, but understandably so: The longer it takes the agents to put the puzzle together, the harder it becomes to find the missing person. To further along the process, the team splits up for hours and then meets at the New York FBI Headquarters to fill in a DOD (Day of Disappearance) timeline. The show does an admirable job at conveying the criticality of even one misstep: A wrong lead or fake ransom note can throw the whole investigation off-balance.

The pilot episode centers on the disappearance of Maggie Cartwright, a 28-year-old marketing executive. Headed by Senior agent Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia, “Lantana”), the team tries to track her down without any obvious place to start. The woman’s apartment is completely intact and her life seems almost perfect. But as the old saying goes, appearances can be deceiving, and the team learns of Maggie’s drug problem, strained relationship with her parents and an affair with a coworker. These clues lead the agents to Maggie and force viewers to scratch their heads – the ending is both clever and surprising.

“Without a Trace” is refreshing because it puts a face on the victim. By utilizing flashbacks, the viewer gets valuable insight into the missing person’s character. The first episode showcases Maggie’s unconventional relationships remarkably well, particularly with her dad (guest star Bruce Davison of “X-Men” fame). Since the team of agents uses both psychological profiling and general police work to track the victim, the show truly leaves no stone unturned.

On the flipside, however, “Without a Trace” needs to inject some personality into its agents. Aside from the tough-yet-sensitive LaPaglia and no-nonsense Marianne Jean-Baptiste (“Secrets and Lies”), the other cast members are simply going through the motions. Future scripts need to play up the sexual tension between LaPaglia and agent Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery, “Blonde”), and beef up the roles of agents Danny Taylor (Enrique Murciano) and Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close). The show’s writers should take advantage of the attractive cast and develop their personas, much like they do for the victims.

Right now, the cast also seems unnecessarily large for the little screen time each of them receives. But “Without a Trace” is nonetheless highly entertaining and full of great ideas. It’s hard to say whether the show will threaten “ER,” but for the time being, it’s a welcome diversion for viewers becoming weary of the operating table.

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