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TV Preview: 'Without a Trace' picks up steam

Friday, August 08, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Over the summer, ratings for NBC's "ER" have almost disappeared without a trace. That's not unusual for a serialized show, but it's given the competition on CBS an opportunity to grow.

Even one of NBC's slides at the recent TV critics press tour showed "Without a Trace" tied for No. 10 in adults ages 18-49 this summer.


'Without a Trace'

When: 8 tonight and 10 p.m. Thursday on CBS.

Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Poppy Montgomery

This week, two episodes of "Trace" will air, one tonight at 8 and another in the show's regular 10 p.m. Thursday time slot. Neither the "Trace" cast and producers nor CBS executives are ready to get cocky about nipping at the heels of "ER" just yet.

"You have to respect a show that's able to maintain the quality and integrity that 'ER' has been able to maintain over nine years," star Anthony LaPaglia said. "You don't walk in and expect to suddenly crush that."

The rivalry is a friendly one, at least among the casts. Both series film on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.

"I have friends who work on 'ER,' " LaPaglia said. "I have a cup of coffee with them in the morning."

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker quickly dismissed any notion that the peacock is trembling. "ER" has been renewed for another two years and Zucker said he can't imagine it moving to another time slot.

"We're not concerned about 'ER' at all," he said. "Not at all."

Perhaps not, but as "Trace" ramps up for its second season, it will likely prove more formidable than any past "ER" rival.

LaPaglia stars in "Trace" as senior agent Jack Malone, head of the FBI's Missing Persons Squad in Manhattan. Each week he and his team tackle a missing persons case, putting together the pieces of evidence on a time line.

The show's two-part season finale in May was particularly affecting, as the show continued the slow process of revealing character in what's largely a close-ended drama.

"We made a particular effort to develop the main characters in our cast, while still preserving the basic procedural elements of our show," said executive producer Hank Steinberg. "They're still self-contained episodes. They're still story-driven mysteries. We want to continue to grow the characters. We brought it along slowly, and I think one of the things the audience has responded to is the fact they've gotten to know our cast."

LaPaglia was forthright in interviews last fall indicating his desire for more character drama and less procedural exposition, and eventually he got it. "Trace" revealed he and agent Samantha Spade (Poppy Montgomery) had an affair, but by the end of the first season he was trying to get back together with his wife.

"As an actor, you always want more character-driven stuff," LaPaglia said. "I've always felt like the formula for the show is between 10 and 15 percent personal and the rest procedural."

He was particularly grateful for the episode in which Malone had to convince a child molester to reveal the location of a missing boy by pretending to empathize with the pedophile's desires.

"Doing that episode was enormously uncomfortable," LaPaglia said. "You like to be uncomfortable as an actor. It means you're actually getting to do something. ... That one particular scene in the car was something I felt like I hadn't really seen before, where somebody in law enforcement tried to seduce a pedophile."

Even when the show isn't exploring character, Steinberg said, it's able to connect with audiences through the depiction of emotional cases.

"The stories explore the emotionality of the characters, the guest stars, the missing people, the friends and family who are left behind. Actual events are happening for our main cast to comment on, to relate to, to be affected by," Steinberg said. "Then there are also ways to interweave personal stories between them that don't have anything to do with the cases. We just try and keep a balance with that and have it not take away from the urgency of the mystery that we're telling."

As the new season begins on Sept. 25, Spade will suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by her kidnapping and accidental shooting in May's season finale.

"She's trying to pretend she's OK and everything is all right, and everyone can see that it's not," Montgomery said. "She's got a lot of anger, which is great character stuff, and a lot of fear she's not dealing with."

Steinberg said Spade and Martin Fitzgerald (Eric Close) may develop a relationship -- an attraction was already hinted at -- but producers said they let these things develop gradually. Last season, several scenes in early episodes revealed the Malone-Spade affair, but they were cut because producers didn't think they worked. Likewise, the introduction of Jack's wife took longer than they expected.

"We must have written three or four scenes where she showed up or where Jack went home. And it just didn't feel right," said executive producer Ed Redlich. "And then I think when we did it organically, it made sense. It would be nice if we had a grand plan, but we've kind of stumbled our way to figuring this out."


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

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