After 48 hours, they're gone. That's what the statistics say about the success rate in finding missing persons, and that's the ticking clock that the New York FBI Missing Persons squad is working against as they track down the bits and pieces of information that will help them find their quarry. It's a mix of detective work and practical psychology: as the team's leader Jack Malone (Anthony La Paglia) describes it in the series pilot, in which a successful executive apparently vanishes into thin air, "Once we find out who she is, odds are we'll find out where she is."
I'd never seen or even heard of Without a Trace before getting this set to review, and I was honestly blown away by just how good it is. Each episode is so well crafted and so engaging that it made me impatient to watch the next one, and the next, and the next. What is it that makes Without a Trace so good? It's a difficult question, because all the elements of the show are so tightly woven together that it's hard to tease the threads apart.
First of all, there's the premise and structure of the show: it's entirely based around the team's investigation of the missing person. Without a Trace plays entirely fair, both with its characters and with its viewers. What the team finds out, we find out, nothing more, nothing less. No wonder, then, that we're eagerly awaiting the result of each inquiry, and are fascinated by each new piece of evidence: the process of solving the mystery, as well as the mystery itself, is an essential part of the plot of each episode. We're also witness to how they get their information, instead of just being told what they find out, which gives Without a Trace substantial appeal as a mystery puzzle as well as a healthy dose of realism. What can they possibly find out from the tenuous leads they start with? The "how" is as fascinating as the "what" in many cases.
Add to this the fact that there's an implied time limit to each investigation, and the result is a constant high level of suspense in each episode. We're told that after 48 hours have passed, most disappearances are never solved, so that's the ticking clock... and to keep that deadline fresh in our minds, we're periodically shown a caption that indicates how many hours the victim has been missing.
You might think that a show whose premise focuses just on missing persons, not on other kinds of crime, would get repetitive... but Without a Trace is actually remarkably inventive, with each episode feeling fresh and new. In fact, the "missing persons" premise offers a lot more intrinsic variety than, say, the murder-mystery. In the first-season episodes of Without a Trace, we encounter a wide range of stories, all developing out of the fact that each vanished individual has his or her own unique personality and past history, which in turn lead to the unique circumstances of his or her disappearance.
Without a Trace also keeps the tension high by being willing to take the story in a variety of directions. Sometimes the team finds the missing person, and there's a happy reunion... sometimes the investigation discovers that the story ends in tragedy. I've been very impressed with the quality of the individual stories, which often develop in surprising ways as the team works through layers of deception and confusion to discover who the missing person really is. That's not to say that all the episodes are equally brilliant; there are a few weaker ones, like "Suspect," which sags toward the end. But the overall quality of the writing and acting (both of the main actors and of the guest stars) is impressively high over the course of the season.
Stylistically, Without a Trace gets high marks as well, using a variety of methods to create a fast-paced and involving show. For instance, one of the characteristic features of each episode is how the team creates a timeline of the missing person's last known movements: as new information is found, it's written in on the whiteboard. As the episode proceeds, this timeline gets fuller and fuller... and at the end of the episode, when the story is resolved (one way or another), the whiteboard is erased. It's both a useful way to help keep the viewer on track, and a visual signature for the show.
More than that, though, the cinematography of Without a Trace creates a distinctive visual style that ties everything together. The use of fade-ins and fade-outs as the witnesses recount their stories, for instance, is remarkably effective; we get to see their memories acted out, rather than just getting a verbal description of them. And to pull it all together, the recurring overhead shots of the city are remarkably effective in setting the tone of the show. From far overhead, too high to actually see individuals on the streets, the city looks like an intimidating maze; it's a powerful image of just how easy it would be for someone to get lost in the streets of New York.
Fans of the show will be interested to know that the two-part series finale, "Fallout," is presented here as the "creator's cut," featuring material that was cut in its original broadcast airing.
The packaging for Without a Trace gets a big "thumbs up" from me. It's a four-DVD set, with each disc being double-sided and dual-layer, with four episodes on each side. This may trouble you if you have an unreasoning hatred of flippers, but for the rest of us, it's great, because instead of having to mess around with the more typical seven DVDs, the series fits on only four with the exact same transfer quality. The four discs are packaged in a fold-out cardboard holder that fits into a slipcase made of tough, durable plastic with a nifty partly see-through design. All in all, it's a stylish and practical package.
An insert booklet is included, with capsule descriptions of each episode: be careful, since there are some spoilers revealed in the descriptions. The set contains all 22 episodes from the show's first season (with the two parts of the finale being counted as one episode).
Without a Trace is presented in a nice widescreen anamorphic transfer, at the show's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It's a good-looking transfer overall, with a clean print and always natural-looking colors. The one consistent weak point in the image is the contrast, which is too heavy; darker portions of the image (even in well-lit scenes) are too dark, and a lot of detail gets lost in more dimly-lit scenes. That's really the only fault with the transfer, though; overall it offers an engaging viewing experience.
The soundtrack may claim to be a mere Dolby 2.0, but it's the best Dolby 2.0 mix that I've heard in a very long time. The way the sound is distributed among the center and side channels has been done in some mysteriously effective way that creates the impression of full surround sound. The result is a marvelously immersive audio experience, combining the show's effective musical soundtrack with crisp and clean dialogue. I did find the volume level to be a bit low, but consistently so; all you need is to raise the volume a little bit and you're all set.
The special features on this set are reasonably interesting. Two of the episodes have commentary tracks: the pilot features writer Hank Steinberg and executive producer Ed Redlich, and the finale, "Fallout," has Hank Steinberg. About half of the episodes have deleted scenes, which can be viewed on the same disc as the episode by selecting the "Missing Evidence" icon next to the episode title.
On Disc 4, we also get two featurettes. "Motive: The Making of Without a Trace" is a 15-minute piece that, as the title suggests, takes viewers through the development of the show from initial idea to final product. It's moderately interesting, and features interviews with many of the cast and crew. "Fingerprints: The Look of Without a Trace" (10 minutes) examines how the distinctive visual style of the show was created (including how they got Los Angeles to look like New York), again with some interesting interview clips from the people involved.
Gripping, well-paced stories, excellent performances across the board, a stylish visual appearance... what's not to like about Without a Trace? It's an unabashedly intelligent show, one that requires its viewers to pay attention, and rewards them for doing so by providing thoughtful, complex, and compelling stories. The fact that the DVD set offers a very nice transfer, with the episodes appearing in anamorphic widescreen, is just icing on the cake. Highly recommended.