Few things are as reassuring as competency. That trait is at the center of the new CBS case-of-week series “Tracker,” about a survivalist and professional problem-solver named Colter Shaw, played by “This Is Us” alum Justin Hartley. As a kid, his dad taught him how to track animals and people, “which is how I found you, by the way,” he tells an injured hiker early in the first episode. Dad also taught him the basics of staying alive in an emergency: Make quick, smart decisions and remain calm.
Listen, if Justin Hartley were leaning over my mangled body and saying these words with the confidence of a seasoned camp counselor, I would be comforted too. The man knows what he’s doing, thank God somebody does.
These talents Colter acquired in childhood are how he makes a living: If someone is missing and there’s a monetary reward, he’s on the case.
Sort of an usual job, though, someone points out. “I find it to be steady work,” he replies evenly. Why shouldn’t he be compensated for his time, risk-taking and extraordinary life-saving skills? “I believe it was 50 grand?” he says to the rescued hiker’s boyfriend, who hems and haws. Colter is unmoved. “As we discussed, a reward becomes a binding contract at the moment of success, so …”
Based on the book series by Jeffery Deaver that begins with “The Never Game,” the TV series follows this nomad reward-seeker (Hartley) who tows his Airstream trailer from one place to the next, helping locate the missing. Finding people is his focus, but tracking down lost or stolen property — or an animal escaped from the zoo — would be an interesting way to keep the premise fresh. Let’s hope show creator Ben H. Winters and showrunner Elwood Reid push future stories in that direction. Every episode doesn’t need to be a “Criminal Minds”-esque white-knuckler about a human life on the line. A search for lost treasure or a family heirloom would be fun, too. Just saying.
But I understand why CBS is premiering “Tracker” in its post-Super Bowl time slot. The pilot is a promising start and deserves a high-profile launch. (It will air at 9 p.m. ET Sundays thereafter.) The first episode has Hartley taking off his shirt less than five minutes in, which makes you wonder if this was at the network’s prompting: Get that man’s six-pack on the screen, we didn’t hire Justin Hartley for nothing!
After a strong initial outing, the successive episodes take on a slightly more grim sensibility that tends to pervade most procedurals on CBS. It would be great if Colter wasn’t pulling a gun so often. In those moments, the show feels like any other cop show, where uncertainty is mitigated with a firearm. But this isn’t a cop show and it shouldn’t be relying on those same old predictable tropes.
“Tracker” tries to balance Colter’s single-mindedness with a cast of regulars who function as his support team and occasional comic relief. A cute couple works as his management team, played by Robin Weigert (“Big Little Lies”) and Abby McEnany (“Work in Progress”). There’s also an attorney (Fiona Rene) who’s on call when Colter’s methods run afoul of the law, as well as a computer expert (Eric Graise) who is just a phone call away whenever a database needs hacking.
If only the supporting ensemble were given three-dimensional characters to play. Barring that, if only the show saw the humor in an archetype like Colter (which is what makes the similarly themed “Reacher” on Amazon so watchable) or had him engage in some light deception every once in a while. All the necessary components are there for a diverting series, they just need some finessing. An occasional self-amused “what have I gotten myself into now?” would go a long way. So would more encounters with people who think they can weasel out of paying that reward after Colter has worked his magic. Navigating those interpersonal dynamics has so much potential.
Fundamentally, Hartley is a strong enough presence to carry the show. But he needs more of a personality — a gimlet-eyed view of the world maybe, or at least some hobbies or cooking preferences that create a sense of home even though he lives his life on the road with no fixed address or community ties.
Mostly, though, the show needs stronger storytelling. The case-of-the-week structure has a specific architecture that tends to work best when it’s treated as a mystery, not a backdrop for a special ops assignment. That means laying off the incessantly serious music and over-the-top heroics. Colter is a man of action. But we also need to see him contemplating his next move for it to feel like anything more than a collection of scenes marching us to the inevitable tidy ending. I like tidy endings when they’re well-earned.
By design, Colter is dropped into a new setting each week and surrounded by new characters, not unlike that old favorite “Murder, She Wrote.” The latter was a consistent presence on CBS for 12 seasons straight and offers some useful insights for “Tracker’s” writers, who might be out of practice — or were never asked to write in this particular genre previously. When your lead isn’t tied to a specific location, it opens up all kinds of creative scenarios and richly drawn one-off guest stars, from snooty egomaniacs to guys who say fuhgeddaboudit and everyone in between. “Murder, She Wrote” could take place on a Hollywood backlot in one episode and a rural archeological dig the next, and they were all believable worlds that allowed for tonal variations beyond “fraught,” which is where “Tracker” lands too often in its early going.
Going forward, if Colter were written with a greater sense of curiosity and given more interesting people to bounce off of each week, CBS might have a keeper.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: Premieres Sunday on CBS after the Super Bowl; its regular time slot thereafter will be 9 p.m. ET Sundays.