Friday, February 25, 2005

The Proper Marriage of Acting and Writing

I'm not sure how much of Without A Trace is based in reality and how much is pure invention. I don't know, for example if the FBI maintains a missing persons unit. I don't know if law enforcement organizations at any level will investigate a missing persons case until 48 (or is it 72) hours has passed unless the missing person is a child. I am aware that in any criminal case the likelihood of successfully solving the case goes down as time passes, and goes down very precipitously in the early hours of the case. What I do know is that since it first debuted Without A Trace has been compelling enough to keep me from watching ER, which until that time had been on my "don't miss list" and while I'm pretty sure that a lot of it has to do with what I see as the decline in the quality of the stories in ER, I watch Without A Trace because it has managed to present good and frequently great television.

Without A Trace is a product of the Jerry Bruckheimer stable of shows. I am frequently driven to wonder just how much Bruckheimer is involved in this or the other programs he produces. They're a diverse lot, including the three CSI series, Cold Case, Without A Trace and The Amazing Race. He also has a comedy called The Evolution of Man listed as being in pre-production. This is all in addition to his movie work which in the past five years has ranged in quality from Veronica Guerin to Kangaroo Jack. Is Bruckheimer's role in his TV shows to put creative people together with money people and make the marriage work, or does he actually get his hands dirty on a day to day basis. It doesn't really matter because - for the most part - the TV series where he's listed as Executive Producer tend to be good quality productions. Which is more than can be said for most of his movie work.

The most noticeable thing about Without A Trace is the acting - it is rock solid. Led by Anthony LaPaglia as Jack Malone and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (nominated in for an Academy award in 1996 for Secrets And Lies) as Viv Johnson, the missing persons unit also includes Poppy Montgomery as Samantha "Sam" Spade, Enrique Murciano as Danny Taylor, and Eric Close as Martin Fitzgerald. (Trivia: of the five member of the cast of solid American characters, three are non-Americans - LaPaglia and Montgomery are Australians and Jean-Baptiste is British.) It is a show that is carried by the strength of the actors. While other series often attempt to submerge the characters in the work they are doing, the writers on Without A Trace have given their characters (mostly) believable personal lives which makes them more fully realized as people. Making the characters more complex in this way runs a risk - played badly the characters could be seen as artificial - but this cast makes the added dimension work. Thus it's believable that LaPaglia's character is too obsessed with his job to make his marriage work, but it's also believable that he doesn't fully know it until he's confronted with it. If it's only presented to us as a fait accompli early on in the run of the series then it's just an aspect of the character. In this case it has been revealed over time, but the revelation hasn't been incidental but has been the focus of episodes.

Writing for Without A Trace is a major strength but it's often not as noticeable as the acting, perhaps because of how good the acting is. The show has had its share of by the numbers plots and usually has it share of gimmicks, like revealing the clues and movements of the missing persons through flashbacks, there are episodes that stand out with their power. The finale of the first season is in essence a conversation between Agent Malone and a bereaved man who has taken a group of hostages and traded them for Malone. We learn a lot about the hostage taker but a lot more about Malone which gives us a solid grasp handle on part of his character. Another episode featured an amazing performance by Charles Dutton as a man whose life has been devastated by the unsolved abduction of his son several years before. Part of that episode's success was undoubtedly Dutton's acting ability (he won an Emmy as Outstanding Guest Star in a Drama for it), but part of it is that the writers gave him a strong script to work with.

I have a theory that in the end there are three essential features to any TV show or movie - the actors, the writers, and the director. If all three are outstanding then the product will be outstanding. If any two of the three are superior then what is seen on the screen will be good but often great. If only one of the three is first rate then you might get something worth watching, but probably not. If you have none of them you get Porky's or Kangaroo Jack or most Adam Sandler movies. At the very least Without A Trace has strong writers and excellent actors. It is invariably good and sometimes great.

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