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The Untold Truth Of Without A Trace

The police procedural "Without a Trace" made its debut on CBS in 2002, with the hopes that it could make a dent opposite the ratings steamroller that was "ER." The show lasted for seven seasons, airing 160 episodes before its cancellation in 2009. While ratings had declined in later seasons, "Without a Trace" remained ranked in the Nielsen top 20 at the time of its cancellation (per The Futon Critic). Still, that alone was not enough to save the series, which focused on missing persons and the FBI Unit designed to find them.

Created by Hank Steinberg, "Without a Trace" was one of many procedurals produced by the legendary Jerry Bruckheimer (who we can also thank for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and its many spin-offs). "Without a Trace" was popular with fans and received a fair amount of critical acclaim for a procedural drama. The show won two Primetime Emmy Awards out of its five nominations, and lead actor Anthony LaPaglia won the 2004 Golden Globe for his performance as John Michael Malone. 

Though it may not hold the cultural significance of the "Law & Order" or "NCIS" franchises, "Without a Trace" was a solid procedural that lives on thanks to streaming. Here are some untold truths about "Without a Trace."

The show sometimes traveled for filming

Most police procedurals are set in large metropolitan areas, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Miami. "Without a Trace" followed this trend by setting its fictional Missing Persons Unit in New York, but the cast actually filmed most of the show in sunny Los Angeles. Though it is not rare for New York City set shows to be filmed elsewhere, because cops spend much of their time on the streets of a city, "Without a Trace" occasionally moved production to New York for brief visits. According to a CBS News profile, this was done to achieve authenticity.

The cast of "Without a Trace" did not seem to mind the travel, at least not according to what they have said in the press. "I lived in New York for 20 years, so it's my home," leading man Anthony LaPaglia told CBS News. "I like working on location. It's harder than working in LA. Here it's, you know, 'Hey, what are you doin?' You know, it's like in the middle of a take, some guy, you know, yelling out, asking what your next project is." Co-star Eric Close told the New York Daily News that "New Yorkers are very cool people," while Poppy Montgomery, who played Samantha Spade, talked about their vitality. "Nothing can replace the way New York looks on film," she also noted. "Having even the little bits and pieces that we get to put in the show for our exteriors now, it changes the whole flavor."

The show weirdly predicted a few crimes

It is very common for procedurals to draw on cases that have already happened. In fact, some shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" make it a habit. That series has created cases that reference everything from Woody Allen to the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. While drawing on real-life for inspiration is the norm, predicting real life with your fictional stories is not –- and yet, that is exactly what happened in "Without a Trace" on numerous occasions.

In a 2003 profile from behind the scenes of the show, CBS News noted how "Without a Trace" "eerily seemed to foreshadow real news events." For instance, the cast and crew filmed an episode with a missing pregnant woman only weeks before Laci Peterson's much-publicized disappearance. Peterson was eight months pregnant when she vanished, and her husband Scott was later convicted of her murder. "Maybe, you know, maybe people are watching the show and getting ideas," suggested one of the show's cast members, Enrique Murciano. Thankfully, these instances have appeared to be more coincidental than evidence of a blueprint for would-be criminals.

The show helped find actual missing people

One of the coolest things about "Without a Trace" was the show's desire to help real-world families find their missing loved ones. Each episode that aired highlighted a real-life missing person and asked for aid from the public should they have ever encountered the disappeared individual. There were at least four instances where the show directly led to the rescue of missing persons, according to The Futon Critic

One of these instances was the case of brother and sister Nicholas Antonio and Gio'Annah Candela, who were both under age 10 when they were kidnapped by their biological mother after their father was granted full custody, according to a CBS press release (per The Futon Critic). Nicholas was featured on the July 21, 2005, episode of the show, and his sister was set to be featured the following week, but that proved unnecessary when the children were found mere days after the July 21 airing.

A similar breakthrough occurred when 18-year-old Laura Mackenzie was located after being featured on a June 1, 2006, episode of "Without a Trace." Mackenzie had fled New Hampshire as she was set to face criminal charges, and the show allowed her to be found and prosecuted. The other two noted instances of someone being found after "Without a Trace" highlighted their disappearance are harder to directly link to the show since both of those cases were also featured on CBS's "The Early Show." Nonetheless, many were relieved when the missing people –- a 26-year-old woman and a baby of only a year and a half –- made it home safely.

It was cancelled at least in part because of costs

As previously mentioned, "Without a Trace" performed respectably in the ratings up until its cancelation, which indicates more was at play in the decision than just the number of viewers. Sure, procedurals tend to be less hip and cool than some other genres, and their audiences are not always in the coveted age brackets, but that has not stopped "NCIS," "Law & Order: SVU," or the original "Law & Order" from lasting decades. For "Without a Trace," things seem to have simply come down to a different set of numbers –- those of the budget.

According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, CBS executives were deciding between renewing either "Without a Trace" or "Numb3rs," another drama about FBI agents. It seems that they went with "Numb3rs" because it was cheaper to make, most likely due to it being newer. With the number of reboots nowadays -– including one for "Law & Order" -– it would not surprise us if "Without a Trace" were to be revived. Until then, at least we have the full series hosted on streaming services like HBO Max.

Poppy Montgomery's boyfriend was cast

There are benefits to having close relationships in Hollywood, as we have seen time and time again with the casting of celebrity's kids on both the big and small screens. A romantic partnership can also be beneficial when it comes to casting, as there have been many notable instances where a real-life spouse has been brought onto a show to play their lover's on-screen partner. This has happened recently on programs such as "9-1-1," where Jennifer Love Hewitt's husband Brian Hallisay was cast as her character's abusive ex, and it occurred in 2007 when Poppy Montgomery's actual spouse was hired on "Without a Trace."

Montgomery gave birth to her son in December 2007, and while her pregnancy was written into the show, her character did not give birth until the May 2008 season finale. "I went back to work seven weeks after giving birth," the actor told The Boston Herald. "(The story) gave my body a chance to settle without having to wear Spanx. Sometimes I walked around and I thought I was pregnant again. I'd forget. I really enjoyed wearing the belly." Not only did the showrunners write the pregnancy into the plot, but they also decided on Montgomery's real-life partner Adam Kaufman as the child's father, Brian Donovan. Kaufman's character was initially conceived of as a one-night stand, but the pregnancy news changed things and the actor appeared in 13 episodes of the show in total.

The show once faced an indecency charge

When you think of obscenity on television, chances are that your mind goes to "Euphoria," "Game of Thrones," or other cable shows. Even amongst broadcast material, police procedurals do not seem especially salacious, but they have been known to cause a stir when things get too racy. "NYPD Blue," for example, was famously fined over a million dollars for showing a woman's bare buttocks in 2003, although the court ruled in favor of ABC in 2011, per Reuters

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has remained steadfast on regulating language, nudity, and sexuality in the years since "NYPD Blue." That led to "Without a Trace" becoming the target of one such incident in 2006 when the FCC addressed backlogged complaints against a 2004 episode. The commission walloped a massive –- and at the time, record-setting –- $3.6 million fine at CBS because of an episode that featured teenagers in an orgy (according to E! Online). "It's flattering, I suppose, to be the procurer of the single-largest fine in FCC history," show creator Hank Steinberg said to The Hollywood Reporter. "You can do almost anything you want as far as violence on TV, but it remains incredibly restrictive with regard to sex and language." 

The indecency penalty was later reduced to $3.35 million, per the Los Angeles Times, but that still seems outrageous given the lack of nudity or graphic sexual acts.

Half the leads faked their American accents

American television is swimming with Brits, Aussies, and other foreigners playing American citizens with varying degrees of success. In recent years, foreign stars playing Americans have included Australian K.J. Apa on "Riverdale," British Oliver Stark on "9-1-1," and British Daniel Ezra on the ironically titled "All American." 

Clearly, actors cultivating American accents is common, but it is less common for there to be multiple international actors playing United States citizens in one program. Despite being set in the United States and having only American characters, "Without a Trace" featured many foreigners in its main roles. "I have a very good ear for it," Aussie Poppy Montgomery told the Tampa Bay Times. "But I also grew up with American television. In Australia, I was watching all those shows like 'Who's the Boss?' and 'Entertainment Tonight.'"

Anthony LaPaglia -– who played the head of the Missing Person Unit John Michael Malone for all seven seasons of the show – was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and even won a Golden Globe for his performance. The Australian actor told the Tampa Bay Times that earlier in his career, he struggled to get work because people would pre-judge him for his accent. He later started pretending to be American, even in the casting room. Co-star Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who played Vivian Johnson, is also foreign –- though Variety said she "doesn't much hide a British accent" when they reviewed the show in 2002.

Without a Trace was not the original title

From casting to major plot points, it is not uncommon for television series to go through changes in the early stages of development. One of the more typical changes is the show's actual name, which often finishes far from its starting place. Supposedly, "Friends" was famously almost named "Six of One," and "Grey's Anatomy" was pitched using the title "Surgeons" (per BuzzFeed). Other famous programs that underwent titles changes include "This Is Us," which was nearly called "36," and "Seinfeld," which almost went by "The Seinfeld Chronicles."

Like many others, "Without a Trace" was first saddled with another title, though it was not particularly awful. The show was greenlit under the name "Vanished," according to a February 2002 Variety article. It is unclear why the name was changed, but when the show premiered only half a year later, "Vanished" was nowhere to be found. Interestingly, a program named "Vanished" did later come out, and "Without a Trace" was still on the air when it did. The 2006 program, about a senator whose wife disappears, lasted only 13 episodes.

It was slotted against a ratings juggernaut

Television shows just do not get the ratings they did before streaming became a thing, which has caused some to question whether ratings even matter anymore, a shift in attitudes that Variety has investigated. Before the industry adjusted for that, however, some of the biggest hit shows were pulling in tens of millions of viewers per episode. "ER" was amongst the top of the top for much of the early part of its run, which began in 1994 and ended in 2009. It was a crucial part of NBC's famous Thursday night lineup, alongside other ratings dynamos like "Friends," "Seinfeld," and "Will & Grace."

Because "ER" was such a viewership juggernaut, any program slotted against it had an uphill battle, and Thursdays at 10 p.m. was exactly where "Without a Trace" landed in its first season. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Without a Trace" earned a 17% share in households during its first season, which made it the highest-rated CBS show in that timeslot in over ten years. It likely helped that "ER" was by then in its ninth season, but it was still amongst the top programs on TV. CBS paired "Without a Trace" with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" for maximum effect. "The shows are different enough yet have a similar underlining feel to them. They are both like putting puzzles together, and our viewers seem to really love that," CBS executive (and later president) Kelly Kahl told Variety.

Hank Steinberg wanted the show to be more than just a procedural

When people discuss "Without a Trace," much of the focus tends to be on producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He is, after all, behind TV hits such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Cold Case," and "Lucifer." Bruckheimer is also a big-name film producer whose credits include "Bad Boys," "Armageddon," and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. Less attention has been paid to Hank Steinberg, the actual creator of "Without a Trace" and its showrunner for the program's first few seasons. By the time "Without a Trace" was being conceived of in 2002, Steinberg had already established himself in the entertainment industry, having received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination the previous year for writing the miniseries "61*."

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Steinberg admitted he had hesitations about signing onto a procedural but that Bruckheimer was incredibly convincing. "It's very hard to turn down Jerry," he said. Steinberg made a concerted effort to make "Without a Trace" something a bit beyond a standard procedural, highlighting the characters in a way that many crime shows do not. "We crafted the show as a back-door character piece, a thriller with a fixed clock," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "We wanted it to have a kind of European, noirish feel, exploring the toll it takes on the people involved in the search and how it impacts their lives personally." Steinberg has since continued to work in TV, and in 2020 Deadline reported that he had signed a five-year deal with Sony Pictures.