Millions of viewers have detected CBS' top 20 hit without a trace. So how come no one's talking about the missing-persons drama? (Clue: It's been living in CSI's shadow.)

By Bruce Fretts
Updated April 18, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Jesus Christ!” Anthony LaPaglia slams down the phone. The Without a Trace star is filming a scene in which his character, FBI task-force leader Jack Malone, fails to make contact with a hostage taker. There’s only one tiny snafu: A crew member informs the actor that his sacrilegious ad-lib is a network no-no.

”Should I say, ‘Golly gee’?” LaPaglia groans sarcastically. ”What is this, Pax TV?”

Hell, no. Bud Paxson’s golly-gee-rated network has never seen ratings like Trace’s. In its first season, CBS’ drama about a missing-persons squad has quietly crept as high as seventh in the weekly Nielsens, giving Thursday-at-10-o’clock rival ER its toughest competition ever. With an average of 15.3 million viewers, Trace ranks 17th overall for the season, outrating such media magnets as The Simpsons, The West Wing, and 24. The mysterious part is that even climbing past these shows has done nothing to raise Trace’s profile. It’s as if its name predestined the drama to invisibility.

That’s perfectly cool with the cast and crew. ”There’s something to be said for not being crammed down people’s faces,” says creator Hank Steinberg (61*). ”Letting people feel like they found it gives them a sense of ownership.” Trace’s lead-in, CSI, may have tipped off viewers to the show early on, but as Jerry Bruckheimer, executive producer of both series, points out: ”If people don’t like what they see, they’re gone.”

That was certainly the case with previous post-CSI duds (R.I.P., Big Apple; see you on Saturdays, The Agency), which buckled under competition from a still-muscular ER.

Says Enrique Murciano (Black Hawk Down), who costars as street-smart aleck Danny Taylor, ”I thought we’d get our asses beat and go home with our heads between our knees.” Not quite. While ER leads the slot by 5 million viewers, ”we’re definitely giving them a run for their money,” exults Now and Again vet Eric Close, who plays by-the-book rookie Martin Fitzgerald. Season-to-date, Trace ranks 24th out of 200 shows among viewers 18 to 49 — a feat for the perennially older-skewing CBS. ”People did not have high expectations for us,” LaPaglia says. ”That, in a weird way, took the pressure off.”

Nobody would’ve been surprised if the show itself vanished, especially since CBS gave a bigger promotional push to CSI: Miami. Yet network brass say the soft sell was intentional. ”CSI was not on the radar until it couldn’t be denied,” says CBS senior drama VP Nina Tassler. ”It’s going to be the exact same pattern with Without a Trace.” Adds Jonathan Littman, president of Bruckheimer TV: ”When CSI first went on the air, it was not the show with the heat; it was all The Fugitive [which was canceled after one season]. This is the way TV works best — slowly build an audience, and people start talking about it.”

A gradual word-of-mouth success seems quaint in the era of insta-smash reality shows, but ”that means people genuinely like the show, and it’s not about the hype,” says Poppy Montgomery (Blonde), who plays Samantha ”Sam” Spade, an ambitious young agent who just happens to be a bombshell. ”That’s an indication the show has longevity.” LaPaglia agrees: ”We will be on the air long after Joe Millionaire.”