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TV Preview: 'Trace' episode penned by former U.S. attorney

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

CBS's Thursday night drama "Without a Trace" began the television season with the threat of being steamrolled by NBC's "ER. " But unlike "The Agency," last year's sacrificial lamb in CBS's 10 p.m. Thursday time slot, "Trace" has proven to be a formidable competitor.

Season-to-date, while "ER" ranks No. 4, "Trace" is a respectable No. 17 and sometimes beats "ER" when the soapy medical drama is in reruns.

"Without a Trace"

WHEN: 10 p.m. Thursday on CBS

STARRING: Anthony LaPaglia


A procedural drama about New York-based FBI agents who solve missing persons cases, "Trace" has probably been helped by interest in real-life cases such as those of Elizabeth Smart and Laci Peterson.

As the series' profile has grown, producers have become more willing to develop the show's characters, a trait almost absent in early episodes.

This week's show doesn't feature a missing-persons case but focuses on squad leader Jack Malone (Anthony LaPaglia). Pittsburgher Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, co-wrote this week's "Trace."

Litman, counsel at the law firm of Phillips & Cohen and Distinguished Visitor in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, attended Harvard with Ed Redlich, the episode's co-writer and one of the show's executive producers.

The show marks Litman's first writing credit. Redlich originally brought him in to consult on how events depicted in the episode -- including an internal affairs investigation of Malone -- would play out in reality.

"What would a defense attorney say here? How would a judge react to this argument?" Litman said, by way of example. "I spent a little bit of time on the set at Warner Bros. in Burbank and did some brainstorming, and then eventually they just asked me to write the thing, so I did."

The episode includes references to early "Trace" installments, including one in which Malone took extreme measures to find a boy held captive by a private school's headmaster.

"This is the show where 'as you sow, so shall you reap' in a legal way. It comes back in the courtroom to bite them," Litman said. "It's more courtroom-focused than they normally do."

For LaPaglia, who expressed some frustration in the fall with the lack of character development on the series, the story was a welcome diversion.

"Procedural drama is tough, because if you're a main character, you're always asking questions about finding someone and the people who get to act are the guest stars because they're the people with the real stories to tell," LaPaglia said last week in a teleconference. "It's a delicate balance. You have to tell just enough personal stories to keep not only the actors interested, but the audience likes to see bits and pieces of their lives, too. ... Everybody has agreed that in order for the show to have a nice long life, you at some point need to get involved in the characters to a degree. I don't mind procedural; it's fine. If I got four or five out of 22 [episodes per season] that were character-driven, I'd be fine with that."

Litman said that without a missing- persons case to solve, he and Redlich were at greater liberty to develop the characters.

"I tried to make it meaty for [Anthony]," he said. "There's a dramatic climax in the episode where it's for him a character-defining moment: Will he go this way or that way? I tried to set up that dilemma."

Litman also worked on the depiction of the prosecutors who come after Malone, to make sure they were realistic and not of the Hollywood mustache-twirling variety.

"I was the fuddy-duddy," he said. "I tried to keep it real and faithful to my old compadres. It's just not the case that there are people out there trying to totally screw defendants."

Though he was pleasantly surprised by how much of his draft of the script winds up in the episode that will be televised Thursday, Litman has no plans to go Hollywood.

"Occasionally, things like this come up and they're fun," he said, adding that he's consulted on a Dustin Hoffman movie in development that's based on Scott Turow's novel "Personal Injuries." "I practice law and teach and that's what I mostly like to do. This isn't a career departure for me, just a nice change of pace."

For the "Trace" cast, the departure from form will likely be short-lived. The network prefers procedural series these days because they perform better in the ratings in repeats and don't require viewers to tune in every week as more serialized shows do.

And the missing-persons stories are eerily timely, coinciding with real-life headline-grabbing cases. LaPaglia expressed little surprise that Scott Peterson was charged with the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn child because of what he's learned working on "Trace."

"The stats are, nine out of 10 times, if a wife goes missing or is murdered, it was the husband or boyfriend [who did it]," he said. It's also in keeping with reality that cases on "Trace" don't always end well. "The police don't always end up with a happy ending, and we have to reflect that and be true to what goes on."

For the same reason, LaPaglia was shocked when Elizabeth Smart was found alive. He hopes "Trace," which features a real-life missing person on screen at the end of each episode, might someday play a part in bringing someone home.

"The day somebody gets found because of one of those, I'll be a really happy guy."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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