CBS debuted Tracker in its coveted post Superbowl slot last night, a clear sign the network is pinning its hopes on the new procedural drama to be at least a modest success this TV season.
While ratings for Tracker (starring Justin Harley, This is Us, Revenge) are bound to receive a football audience-sized bump, I can’t help but wonder if the show has what it takes to continue to capture audiences’ imaginations going forward.
Hartley stars as Colter Shaw, a so called lone-wolf survivalist who roams from town to town helping local people find missing loves ones. Colter is a “rewardist” who’s in it for the money ($50,000 for finding a missing hiker in in the opening scenes), but who also has a surprising heart of gold AND a mysterious backstory the show wants to eek out in half-sided conversation snippets, text messages, and knowing looks over the season ahead.
Flashbacks show us pieces of Colter’s past. He’s a middle child with two siblings and a father who seems to either be a paranoid Doomsday prepper or a schizophrenic. Either way, Dad is convinced “they” are coming for him, and even pulls a knife on his oldest son when the kids resist fleeing into the night during one stormy and eventful scene. There’s some deliberate obfuscation about exactly what happens next, but it looks like Colter’s older brother may have pushed Dad to his death from a clifftop and now no one in the family will talk to him — even though in the present day we are shown he HAS IMPORTANT BREAKING NEWS to share, dammit! Anyway, Colter’s unique background of skinning rabbits, tracking muddy footprints in the woods, and being forced to climb a clearly very dangerous cliff with no climbing equipment have made him the man he is today. Ok?
Look, it has to be said. Justin Hartley is leading man material, and anyone who says otherwise has not been paying attention to his recent body of work. Or his recent body. Hartley’s Colter is handsome, charming, uncomplicated, and heroic. His soft brown eyes radiate warmth and reassurance, and his muscular body, on show at regular intervals throughout the pilot episode, makes us want to believe he could actually carry a woman in his arms over rough terrain for five miles. And probably without breaking a sweat. We can almost find it in ourselves to forgive him for his weird habit of telling everyone the exact odds of something terrible happening to them in the next five minutes.
“I put your odds of survival, leg intact, at 15 maybe 20 percent,” he tells his bounty in the opening scene, matter of factly, before going on to inform her that if he carries her to safety in his manly arms her survival rate (presumably with leg) will be closer to 95 percent. She seems convinced. Later, Colter tells a kidnapper that if he immediately leaves the scene of the crime, he’ll have a five to ten percent chance of getting away scott-free. Despite clearly terrible odds the kidnapper is similarly convinced. In fact everyone that Colter spits percentages at is immediately accepting of their odds with a zero percent chance of anyone questioning where he’s getting those numbers from. Even the local law enforcement is convinced to sit this one out while Colter goes in by himself to rescue a young boy from a jumpy felon with a twitchy trigger finger. Because the odds.
Comparisons are floating among some critical reviews today suggesting Tracker is a little like Prime Video’s Reacher, but anyone who loved Reacher season one and was horrified by its start-to-finish-clichéd second season might not see that as such a compliment. Tracker (and Reacher season 2 for that matter) are filled with stock characters, predictable outcomes, and plot lines that expect the audience to forgive too much. (Colter successfully retrieves the kidnapped child by searching his phone history, and then looking at the CCTV footage from a restaurant where the kid agreed in a text message to meet his abductor. His unique way of “noticing the details” leave the local police force in awe.)
No wonder Justin Hartley’s physique is so well defined. He’s carrying the whole show on his shoulders.
Tracker is based on a best selling novel, The Never Game, by Jeffery Deaver. However Tracker the TV series is based on any number of broadcast procedural dramas you’ve seen before. There’s little on display in the way of originality or cleverness, and Colter’s breakthrough moments are only spectacular feats of connected puzzle-solving because all of the characters on the show agree that they are. Even the tasty morsels Tracker is squirrelling away for later in the season (what’s up with Colter’s brother? What shenanigans was Dad really into? Why won’t Mom tell Colter the truth?) feel unappetizing from the get go. If you prefer your shows not to challenge you then there’s probably a lot here you’ll like. If on the other hand, you were hoping for something different, there’s a 40 to 50 percent chance you’ll get bored and change the channel.
Tracker continues Sundays (9:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network and is also available on the CBS app and by streaming it on Paramount+.