Every now and then I find a show
that grabs me right from the start and doesn't let go. That was the
case with the first
season of Without a Trace: I'd never heard any buzz about
the show before I reviewed it, but it hooked me from the first
episode and left me anxiously waiting for the second season to turn
up on DVD. The sophomore season can be a tough one, but Without a
Trace takes it in stride, delivering one powerful episode after
Without a Trace has several
things going for it from the outset. One is a really solid cast.
Anthony LaPaglia is a fine actor, and he's put to excellent use here
as Jack Malone, the head of the FBI's New York Missing Persons unit.
LaPaglia is completely convincing as a man who's driven by his own
inner demons; he wants to save them all, but of course he can't. It's
amazing how much depth LaPaglia brings to a character who is shown to
be emotionally closed in; for one thing, he's amazingly good at
showing us that Jack is having a strong emotional reaction to
something... without letting us know exactly what that reaction is.
"Tough but vulnerable" is a hard act to pull off, and
LaPaglia makes it work. The other actors have matured nicely into
their roles; in particular, Season Two gives Poppy Montgomery and
Eric Close good work with their characters. Montgomery's character
shows greater nuance, and Close's has evolved past the "new guy"
stage of Season One. That's not to slight the continuing strong
performances of the other two members of the main cast: Maryanne
Jean-Baptiste and Enrique Murciano deliver solid and nuanced
performances across the season.
Another strength is the premise of
the show itself. Focusing on a team that solves missing-persons cases
was a brilliant idea that Without a Trace exploits perfectly.
One of the observations I've made as a reviewer of mystery shows is
that Danger Number One is usually repetition. How many different
variations on "murder most foul" can you get in a single
season before you start ringing the same tune over again? However,
the plots that we get in Without a Trace are much more varied. To
begin with, people go missing for a variety of reasons; since the
team in Without a Trace needs to delve into the "why"
in order to figure out the "where," there's a rich
psychological element in many of the episodes. Then there's the fact
that the stories can develop in several different directions. Was
foul play involved? Were there other crimes connected to the missing
person, that need to be solved before the person can be found? And
lastly, there's the tension about the ending. One of the great
strengths of Without a Trace is that it doesn't shy away from
tragedy. Many of the stories end on a sorrowful note, with the
discovery that "missing" really meant "dead." But
-- and here's an essential bit -- that's not always the case. Enough
of the stories end on a positive note that we're always kept in
suspense. Will this turn out well or badly? The plotting always kept
Then there's the overall production
of the show. Without a Trace has a clear visual identity, with
its use of a handful of characteristic elements: the shots of New
York seen from above, the "vanishing" effect for the
missing persons in the initial set-up scene, the skillful use of
visualizations and imagined scenes by the agents, the slightly muted
color palette. All these things are used deftly to create a distinct
style for the show that serves as a kind of visual "theme"
to support the narrative. It's the sort of thing that could be
overdone, but isn't here. The episodes are also edited tightly, so
that the show's complex plots move along swiftly and effectively.
It's a show that asks viewers to pay attention, and rewards them for
These are all things that were true
of Season One, so the main point of mentioning them here is to say
that in Season Two they're still working just as well. What's
different about Season Two, then?
I'd actually say that there are
several things that are working better here. One is that the stories
show a greater confidence with the characters. As with Season One, we
get character development interwoven into the episodes, but I think
it's done even a bit better here than in the first season; certainly
the show is banking on the viewers being smart enough to pick up on
the characters' personalities and ongoing issues with a subtle touch.
We definitely see the characters changing and growing, but in a
nicely realistic way, in little bits and pieces over the course of
I also think that the Season Two
episodes show an even defter hand with the emotional tone of the
show. Without a Trace keeps the plot moving swiftly along, so
that intellectually we're caught up in the puzzle aspect of it, but
the human side of the equation is always kept in view. As the team
works on each case, they dig into peoples' lives, so the episodes
serve as snapshots of emotions: pain, struggle, love, loss, anger,
hope, grief. There are no easy answers or one-dimensional characters
here, even the secondary ones; as viewers, we're drawn into these
stories and so we feel the wrench of sorrow at a bad ending or the
rush of relief at a happy ending. It's a difficult thing to evoke
genuine emotion without being manipulative, but Without a Trace
consistently walks that line just right. I'd venture to say that its
success in handling the emotional content comes from an overall sense
of honesty: the show takes dramatic material and gives it to us in a
forthright manner, showing us the reactions of the main characters
but not forcing those reactions on the viewer. We can connect with
the stories in our own way, and so the connection becomes all the
more effective when it happens.
The storytelling in Season Two is
solid from the very start. The opening episode, "The Bus,"
gives us both a taut, well-plotted story and a hefty emotional jolt;
the following episodes keep up the good work. One of the pleasures of
Without a Trace is being surprised by the twists and turns of
the plots, so I won't go into any detail that would give away any of
the suspense, but I can point out that the stories are rich and
varied. Among the missing persons are a young violin prodigy, a
paparazzo, an ailing priest, an immigrant boy, a firefighter, a
neurosurgeon, a young mother... What else turns up? Greed, revenge,
confidence scams, betrayal, loss, spurned love, true love, serial
murder, robbery, arson, corporate misdeeds, and a whole lot more.
There aren't that many shows that I can sit and watch one episode
right after another, but Without a Trace is one of them: this
show is positively addictive.
Without a Trace is nicely
packaged for Season Two, with the six discs in three ultra-slim
plastic keepcases, inside a glossy paperboard slipcover.
Without a Trace appears in
its original widescreen anamorphic aspect ratio, at 1.85:1. While it
seemed like the earlier episodes on the set were a bit soft, it looks
cleaner halfway through, with a generally clean, clear image.
Close-ups are always nicely sharp and detailed; longer-distance shots
are sometimes softer, but still attractive to the eye. The contrast
tends to look a bit heavy at times, but I'm starting to see the
slightly oversaturated look as part of the show's overall style. It's
a visually appealing package overall.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is
robust and clean, handling both dialogue and background music very
effectively. That's a definite plus for Without a Trace, since
the show makes good use of theme music to set the mood and to carry
emotional content in key scenes. It's a nicely handled track with a
lot of depth to it.
There are deleted scenes for many of
the episodes, spread out across the season. 15 out of the season's 24
episodes have "Missing Evidence" (unaired scenes).
Without a Trace delivers the
goods: tightly plotted, thought-provoking, emotionally powerful
stories. This is a show that takes its subject matter seriously and
treats the viewer with respect: we get solid acting and intelligent
storytelling in one episode after another, without missing a beat.
While the first season was great to begin with, the second season
seems to hit the ground running, with confidence in its actors,
stories, and overall style. Without a Trace: The Complete Second
Season is a definite must-buy for anyone who enjoys mysteries or
crime drama, as well as anybody who just likes excellent dramatic
narrative. Highly recommended.