Justin Hartley has been waiting for someone to tag him in throughout his whole career. The actor began grinding it out on the small screen over two decades ago, hitting the circuit when he was 23 years old with a truck and a dream. So when CBS’s newest procedural “Tracker” debuts in the coveted post-Super Bowl slot on Sunday, Feb. 11, the actor is ready to prove what he can do as much as the footballers on that field.
If the ratings linger past its glitzy premiere spot, the thriller series based on “The Never Game” by Jeffery Deaver will solidify Hartley’s leading man status as “rewardist” Colter Shaw. In each episode, Colter tracks a case or missing person for a notable reward, using his survivalist skills, ability to read people, and unusual upbringing to wrap it all up by the hour’s end.
“Tracker” is a classic CBS procedural with a streaming life on Paramount+. That means it should benefit from a built-in audience hungry for a high-octane case of the week. In that sense, the show catapults Hartley to the same playing field as Michael Weatherly, Shemar Moore, Jay Hernandez or David Boreanaz. Not only does he put himself in harm’s way to save the day, but Colter is a quiet loner in an Airstream who drives a pickup and is on a personal mission.
Colter can fight, read a room and occasionally break the law for the good of the case before winding down with a beer at the end of a long day. He doesn’t say everything he’s thinking and conveys a lot through his physicality and body language, giving Hartley the opportunity to show off his screen presence. Naturally, he also attracts the ladies and surrounds himself virtually with a chosen family that includes case-finders Velma (Abby McEnany) and Teddi (Robin Weigert), lawyer Reenie (Fiona Rene), and a tech-savvy gamer named Bob (Eric Graise).
It’s a big jump from Hartley’s early Hollywood days playing Fox Crane on one of the campiest soaps ever to exist, “Passions.” But that soap background — he also appeared in 185 episodes of “The Young and the Restless” — was excellent training. It’s a discipline somewhat akin to theatre in that actors must learn lines quickly while whipping through scenes. Plus, there’s the added pressure of making all kinds of surreal situations seem plausible. (Does anyone else remember the talking doll or the caregiver orangutan on “Passions?”)
But “Tracker” also calls some of Hartley’s other TV experiences into play, from his action sequences as the Green Arrow on “Smallville,” to his intensely dramatic storylines in perhaps his best-known role of Kevin Pearson on NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us.”
It’s that latter role that made “Tracker” happen. It was a meta gig in which Hartley explored life as an underestimated actor who battled addiction and sought a sense of purpose and belonging. It was also a case of art imitating life: Despite his standout performance, he was never recognized at the Emmys like his counterparts, including Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown.
But the role caught the attention of director and EP Ken Olin, who brought “The Never Game” to Hartley’s attention and worked with him to bring “Tracker” to life.
Like Hartley, Colter is often underestimated in this series. Characters are quick to write him off as a money seeker or a dude who doesn’t know much, which is how he can come in and solve the cases professionals can’t. That might be a sticking point for some who prefer fictionalized police departments to be better at their jobs, but pull up headlines or check out Netflix’s “American Nightmare,” and it’s easy to make a case for shoddy real-life detective work. The idea that an outsider can bend the law in a way a pro can’t suddenly seems a bit more plausible.
This isn’t to say that “Tracker” is breaking new ground. It’s a routine CBS procedural that fits the broadcaster’s proven formula. The show is also a bit uneven out of the gate, and there are some pretty cartoonish bad guys in Episode 2. The overarching personal mystery of Colton’s family, which weaves in throughout, is also a potential downfall.
That backstory informs who Colter is as an adult, but the flashbacks and present-day links to it feel like a limited device. They raise questions about Colter’s family early on, establishing a tricky balance for the writers. Withhold answers for too long and audiences grow frustrated, but answer questions too early and they can stall the story. There are so many characters, relationships and potential storylines to dive into in the present day that the additional backstory doesn’t feel necessary this early in the series.
The real fun of the show comes with the rotating cases, and just watching Hartley do his thing. Colter isn’t a superhero with a unique ability; he’s just a regular guy with stellar training, underestimated smarts and a big heart. The people who work with him genuinely care about him because he’s helped them in the past, and now they want to aid him in his mission of helping others. Their cut of the reward doesn’t hurt, either.
After years of watching Hartley elevate so many ensemble casts, it’s nice to see him finally get his flowers and collect his own reward: Recognition as the leading man he’s been working his whole career to become.
“Tracker” premieres Sunday, Feb. 11 following the Super Bowl. Subsequent episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, and stream the next day on Paramount+.
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