9 October 2010 | galensaysyes
Good and then less and less good but still not bad
For three seasons this show about missing persons was a favorite of mine. Then the show itself went missing (it changed nights) and I never saw it again.
Well, okay, I did, once in a while. But I'd lose interest before the end and so was never moved to make a note of the new time slot. The show declined, like most shows, a little at a time; it never went bad, but the qualities that had originally drawn me to it slipped away. Really, they began doing so after the first season.
Of course the show was mistitled: the missing always left traces, without which there could have been no stories. The reasons for the disappearances varied (and varied more the longer the show continued), but the best and most characteristic stories were variations on the old song "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies," about a wife who has a seemingly perfect life--rich husband, house and lands, featherbed--and runs away from it. In the song the reason is never disclosed; but on the show, in its best period, a series of interviews would build up a picture of the missing person, gradually revealing what was hidden in his life and in his psyche, so that the story became less a police procedural than a character study. The contrast between the victim's outward life and his inner one, which had become intolerable, gave the format a special resonance: the character had become separated from everything around him before he ever took off; he had left already.
At first glance the regular cast seemed absurdly over-qualified for this type of show, but their ability was essential to its coming off at all. It wasn't just that they were skillful actors but that they were all able to play in the same key, set by the lead, Anthony La Paglia. They behaved like people who had themselves lost someone (some of their losses were dramatized in later episodes) and thereby set the show's tone: an air of bereavement, of having lost something irretrievable, even after the missing persons were found. As a result many of the early episodes were truly affecting, without being forced. However, as often happens on TV, sincerity was the show's first casualty, and after the first season it seldom achieved the same level of poignancy.
Of course not all the episodes conformed to the same pattern. A handful dealt with serial killers, and although most of these were up to standard they weren't really in the show's line.
And it had its share of unlikelihoods from the start. Its style was similar to that of the British spy show Spooks: intense, low-key acting and gritty locales overlaid with flash camera-work. These combined to create an impression of devoted realism which masked the impossibility of the scenes: not one of the conversations could ever have happened as written, especially among people in the professions shown.
The biggest improbability was a prior affair between Jack, the boss, and Samantha, one of his agents, which continued to inform their dealings and the atmosphere of the office in general. The show normally observed such reticence about its regulars' personal lives that a viewer who left to get a Coke was apt to miss the only testimony to a hookup or a breakup; but this connection was supposed to remain unspoken and unsuspected (notwithstanding Samantha's habit of making doe eyes at her former paramour). The two characters evidenced no grounds for a romantic attraction, and their continual almost-but-not-quite flirtations were incredible from the start.
From the beginning, the show had a penchant for sensationalism, which came to predominate in later seasons, with particular emphases on children being molested and women being hit. And then there were the big scenes without significance: Jack tells one of his agents, "You keep screwing things up, one more time and you'll be pounding the pavement"; but the agent hadn't screwed up before, and his status was back to normal next week. There were a few outright misfires, notably a dream play with one of the regular cast in disguise (but recognizable from the first shot).
As the show went on it continued to present many good stories and scenes, but more and more often these came to center on the team members rather than the victims. The writers had to strain increasingly to devise plots that weren't mere variations on what had come before, and so they came to rely more and more on crime show brutalities. Yet they always steered clear of certain subjects, e.g. although it's stated in one scene that wives often go missing because they've been murdered by husbands, I can't remember a single episode turning on spousal murder.
In the last seasons the writers tried out variations on Jack's character, at one point trying to make him into a funny man, with doleful results, and at another point turning him, more successfully, into Mike Hammer. However, the biggest error during the latter part of the show's run was the introduction of Miss Puerto Rico (not sarcasm; that's literally who she was). A thick accent isn't an insurmountable barrier for an actor, but Roselyn Sanchez didn't only sound like Desi Arnaz, she sounded like Desi Arnaz playing Ricky Ricardo. She acted like an official greeter at the Puerto Rico pavilion at the World's Fair rather than a federal investigator, and her breezy posturing--cocking her head, sharkishly flashing her teeth, tapping her toe, striking poses at odd angles like a character out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--killed every one of her scenes.
But she didn't kill the show; it just ran out of inspiration--and eventually, out of cases.