Without a Trace: The Complete First Season On DVD

Anthony La Paglia, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Enrique Murciano, Poppy Montgomery, Eric Close. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 2.0 (English), Four discs. 992 minutes. 2003. Warner Bros. Home Video 33703. NR. $59.98.

Picture ***
Sound ***
Film ***

For today's home theater enthusiast, it may be hard to get excited about watching a series made for television when there's a wealth of theatrical material to choose from. With all of our high-performance gear, we're getting addicted to the fix that generally only a well produced feature film can offer. All too many times, TV shows just don't hold a torch technically or creatively to the 'big boys' of Hollywood. But every once in a while, it's fun to test the waters of 'smart TV' and occasionally you find something with substance.

Without a Trace: The Complete First Season, is a new television-to-DVD box set that fits the bill. With Hollywood action mogul Jerry Bruckheimer Bruckheimer (CSI, CSI: Miami, Pearl Harbor) as Executive Producer, you're guaranteed the slick and aggressive style he's become known for. Airing on CBS the series has won two Emmy Awards (2002/2003) and a 2004 Golden Globe for Best Actor.

I was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of the set. First, and foremost is the story's hook: Jack Malone and his New York Missing Persons team continually race against a ticking clock in recovering someone who has either been kidnapped, murdered, committed suicide or run away. Malone has a very singular modus operandi—learn who your victim is from the inside out. He reasons if you know who they are, odds are you'll find out where they are. The race is on and recovery time is short, because after 48 hours they're usually gone for good!

The episodes offer a wide range of stories and characters and begin by giving you a snippet of the victim's life and situation right before they disappear into the labyrinth of New York City. That's when Malone's team unravels the truth, minute by minute and clue by clue. Of course things are not what they appear to be and secrets about the victim are revealed which leads to the reason they're missing. What makes this series feel real, is that it never ends predictably. The victim can sometimes be recovered dead or alive and at other times can fall prey to the maze forever.

Much of the appeal of watching this series comes with Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana) playing Agent Jack Malone, the anchor of the show. La Paglia, a seasoned Australian actor who generally plays in feature films, adds depth and credibility to the series. In fact, LaPaglia's portrayal won him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Drama series last year. The supporting cast is quite competent with Academy Award nominee Marianne Jean-Babtiste (Secrets & Lies) particularly outstanding in her role as Vivian Johnson.

Part of what makes the series a treat to view is the hip cinematography and editing. One appealing technique used is time-travelling the audience throughout each episode by seamlessly "ghost dissolving" in and out of the past. Clues are revealed through these flashbacks as characters and situations are brought to life.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is very good albeit somewhat soft with no obvious edge enhancement. In line with the distinct visual style of the series, the picture often becomes very contrasty, losing detail in the dark and light areas. For viewers who enjoy a punchy presentation, this succeeds for the most part in tandem with the rich color palette of the show.

The audio track is offered in Dolby Digital 2.0 and sounds very respectable with dialogue rendered crisp and clear. The music, although somewhat compressed sounding, is an eclectic mix and does a good job of complimenting the edgy attitude of the show.

The special features are entertaining and offer fans just the right amount of extras without being a bore. The set includes two informative short promotional pieces; one zeroing in on how the show was created and the other giving the viewer a glimpse of how the show was designed. Other bonus materials offer unaired sequences as well as audio commentary on the pilot episode with series creator Hank Steinberg and executive producer Ed Redlich, with Steinberg also commenting for the series finale.

The set is highly recommended to enthusiasts of the procedural drama genre. Each of the 22 episodes give you a 40 minute thrill and is engaging enough to keep you looking forward to solving the next mystery. In our busy lives, sometimes that is just what we need for a good night's entertainment!