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Without a Trace - The Complete Second Season
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 another.
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 me guessing.
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 doing so.
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 the season.
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.