Anatomy of a hit: 'Without a Trace'

The CBS procedural is more than just another 100-episode success story from the Bruckheimer stable -- it's a show about high ratings and hope.

With Jerry Bruckheimer-produced shows, hitting 100 episodes is hardly stop-the-presses news. Full of the Hollywood slickness and bombast Bruckheimer learned as a film producer and squeezed into TV-sized chunks, a Bruckheimer show is a natural to hit the century mark. And usually, it does so by devastating the competition in its way. So, while CBS' "Without a Trace" fits the Bruckheimer success-story mold perfectly, the Warner Bros. Television show has done so in a most unusual way -- by actually flying beneath the radar.

Such stealth success fits perfectly with the subject matter of "Trace," according to Bruckheimer TV president Jonathan Littman.

"We built the concept around the idea that everyone has a secret life," Littman says. "When someone goes missing, it's usually for a reason. And often it can lead to something going on that no one knew about. That level of revelation inspires our writers to delve into human nature in an entirely unique way. Add to that a singularly brilliant cast, and what you get is magic."

"Trace" has found gold wherever it's been scheduled, with ratings consistently elevating it into Nielsen's Top 10. Its first season, opposite NBC's "ER," earned it a 17% share in households and a 13 with viewers 18-49, which made it the highest-rated Thursday 10 p.m. series for CBS in a decade, according to Nielsen. By Season 2, it was the fourth-highest-rated drama in all of primetime; by Season 3, it was the first show in the decadelong run of "ER" to beat it in both households and total viewers.

CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler remembers well that first triumph against "ER," on Sept. 23, 2003 -- "Trace's" third-season premiere. "That was a great day for this network," she says. "But 'Trace' has been a real solid performer from the night it left the starting gate. It just continued to take off."

"Trace" is perhaps the Bruckheimer stable's most conventional drama, which doesn't mean it's dull -- only that it relies on more traditional TV storytelling methods and tends to downplay the glitz. Designed as a procedural (which has more than once veered into more personal life stories) that rips from the headlines, "Trace" also owes a few notches to the success of NBC's "Law & Order" series. In fact, the whole idea for the show -- now moving into its fifth season -- is a rip from the headlines: Littman hit on the idea for a series centering on an FBI Missing Persons Unit in 2001, at the height of the intense manhunt for Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C.

"Jonathan approached me, and I thought it was a brilliant idea," remembers Tassler, who was then heading up drama at CBS. "There had been so much speculation about Chandra, like, 'Is she dead? Is she missing?' It was a great concept to base an ongoing series around."

Tassler brought in Hank Steinberg, with whom the network had a blind script deal, to create the series, write the plot and then run the show. Steinberg has admitted his reticence in crafting a straight procedural, consistently going the extra mile to bring the characters' inner lives to the story line, rather than simply making them mere cogs in a formulaic wheel.

"My first concern was how I could make an interesting show out of missing people," Steinberg recalls, "and how I could do that in a fulfilling way to myself. The stuff I cut my writing teeth on was all character-related. This show was obviously going to be different."

He wasn't the only one. Ed Redlich, who worked with Steinberg as executive producer of "Trace" at the outset before leaving during Season 3, says, "At first we were all leery about coming in and working a straight procedural. It really wasn't our interest. Our initial challenge was figuring out just what the hell the show was, then telling interesting stories of missing people and making them fully dimensional. Our best episodes were the ones where we created a compelling character and tied their going missing (status) to some personal crisis in their lives."

Redlich points to the show's motto: "If you find out who they are, you'll find where they are." But it also was important to feature star Anthony LaPaglia (who plays Special Agent Jack Malone) in more than merely a cursory way. "We knew we had a stallion in our midst, and we pushed the network and the studio to let us focus on his marriage crumbling and his personal life. We were able to do several episodes that didn't focus on a missing person at all. It was kind of amazing."

Having LaPaglia in the show's stable hasn't hurt a bit; the actor earned a Golden Globe in 2004 -- the only Globe nomination, or win, the show has received -- and he's well aware of the challenges of moving from movies to television. "The graveyard is littered with the bodies of people who thought they were too good for TV," LaPaglia says. "Let me just say that I'll never be one of them. I'm going to be riding this surfboard until it hits the sand."

Not that there haven't been any road bumps: "Trace" became infamous for 15 minutes when a December 2004 "orgy scene" netted CBS a record $3.6 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission.

"It's flattering, I suppose, to be the procurer of the single-largest fine in FCC history," Steinberg says. "You can do almost anything you want as far as violence on TV, but it remains incredibly restrictive with regard to sex and language."

As for how the fine will affect the show down the road, Steinberg remains profanely philosophical. "I'm not particularly worried about the language issue," he says. "We can do fine without 'fuck' and 'shit.'"

That aside, "Trace" has proved just as formidable off-net as on CBS. TNT began repurposing the show in fall 2004 and began running the backend in June 2006. On weeknights, "Trace" pulls in 1.5 million households and 654,000 viewers 18-49 and is ad-supported cable's No. 1 program in that time period among adults 18-plus, according to the network's numbers.

"It's a natural for TNT," says Ken Schwab, senior vp programming for TBS/TNT. "It's a very nice fit with the TNT drama brand, and we're very proud to be associated with it. We already have an association with 'Law & Order,' and clearly this is a good companion piece to that."

Yet even after five seasons, there's no rest for the successful -- "Trace" now finds itself facing a new challenge, having moved to Sundays at 10 p.m.

But Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth says he's unconcerned about the show's ability to carve out a niche on a new night.

"It all begins with the extraordinary instincts of Jerry Bruckheimer," Roth believes. "He is as close to a true audience member as I've ever seen in a man at his level. He's also the least pretentious human being I know. His vision is what's guided 'Without a Trace' from the start, and the execution has been simply amazing. But in every area, from casting to writing to production, this show has been touched by brilliance. You don't see that very often."

One reason for that consistency of vision has been the staff continuity on "Trace," says Jan Nash, who has served as co-showrunner with Greg Walker since Steinberg left the show after Season 3 to help develop the new ABC series "The Nine."

"You can't minimize the family environment we have here where everybody goes the extra mile to make the show superb," Nash says.

Superb yes, but the realism often has walked a fine line. Mark Llewellyn, a 27-year veteran of the FBI, now retired, has served as "Trace's" technical adviser from the beginning. He notes that a series built on an inherently unrealistic premise -- the finding of the missing -- can be frustrating.

"The techniques they use are exactly those that the bureau would. So, I mean, the stories are fictional, but the procedure is not," Llewellyn says.

Real or not, the closure and excitement of finding the lost (more or less) every week seems to be what keeps the multitudes tuning in. And that fantasy, Walker says, is why the show continues to work. "We try never to lose sight of our and the audience's collective fascination with secrets," Walker adds. "That's what it all comes down to. (One) secret for our success, I think, is the fact we don't start with a dead body, even though we may end with one. Implicit at the beginning is that possibility of hope."