Hartley's Colter Shaw finds and rescues the missing in the new drama based on thriller novels by Jeffrey Deaver
Justin Hartley should be having a good weekend.
The actor, best known for his sensitive performance as Kevin Pearson on This Is Us, returns to network television with his own vehicle, Tracker, premiering Sunday night after the Super Bowl game. This is a terrific launchpad for a series that fits in CBS’s particular crime-procedural wheelhouse. Downton Abbey might have been a different story.
Based on the central character in a series of thriller novels by Jeffrey Deaver, Tracker is about — well, it’s hard to pinpoint the phrasing Colter Shaw (Hartley) might use if he were asked to describe his career and experience on a resume. In the premiere episode, he refers to himself as a “rewardist,” but he says this with a mild ironic twinkle, mostly because he’s just been accused of being a mercenary. Not even a mercenary likes to be called that.
Technically Shaw is a mercenary, but not a cynical or hard-hearted one. In fact, he seems absolutely indifferent to the thousands of dollars in income he takes home in the first two episodes. He’s content to follow his own path, driving from adventure to adventure with his Airstream trailer in tow, finding and rescuing people who’ve gone missing. Collecting the money offered by their desperate loved ones is almost beside the point. Shaw never mentions college loans that need paying off or credit card payments that are past due.
As a mercenary, in other words, he’s about the journey, not the end. As a crime-solver, he’s about the end, not the journey.
It’s a tricky role to bring off, but Hartley keeps his performance nicely centered — like a bubble in a spirit level — between a tone of light authority and the occasional furrow-browed hint of inner trouble. In the second episode, which involves a cult and a gun-toting blonde who could have slinked in from Raymond Chandler, Hartley leans a little toward that darker side, and it gives the show some added kick.
Because Shaw does have a darker side, we learn. One reason he’s a good rewardist (career counselors: please help) is rooted in his strange, dysfunctional childhood. His academic father (Lee Tergesen, that ever-dependable character actor) went off the deep end and moved his family way off the grid, teaching them survival skills in the face of what he warned them was a vast, murky, ever-encroaching conspiracy.
The flashbacks we see indicate that the experiment ended badly — yet even now Shaw is dogged by the possibility that this business with his father somehow isn’t done after all, as he makes his solitary way across often broody Western landscapes. From time to time you wonder if he isn't going to run into Frances McDormand from Nomadland.
It'll be fun watching Shaw solve his weekly cases and earn his moral and financial payoff — but the bigger, sustaining draw will be watching him track the impact of his past on his present.
Following its premiere after the Super Bowl, Tracker will air Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS.
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