The Nine

Stream It Or Skip It?


Not every mystery series has to have either a continuing storyline or case-of-the-week stories. Some of the best have both, and a few have both a continuing character-based storyline and a continuing procedural storyline. Traces, a 2019 mystery series debuting on BritBox, looks like it has those elements, plus a cast that can pull that balancing act off. Read on for more.

TRACES: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: A young woman takes a drag from a cigarette, then determinedly strides towards an office building. She bursts into a woman’s office and says that she has found information on her mother’s murder.

The Gist: Flash to three days earlier. Emma Hedges (Molly Windsor) is on her way to her first day of her new job; it’s in her hometown of Dundee, Scotland. She’s working as a lab technician at the Scottish Institute of Forensic Science. She’s arriving at SiFA on a busy day; her boss, Professor Sarah Gordon (Laura Fraser), has been called out to the scene of a fire, assisted by Professor Kathy Torrance (Jennifer Spence). The two of them are about to launch a MOOC, an online course in forensic science.

Emma has a history with Dundee beyond it just being her hometown. In 2001, her mother was killed, and found buried in a shallow grave. So, since she was 6, the mystery behind her mother’s murder has been on her mind. So when she logs onto the MOOC, she’s alarmed that the details of the supposedly fictional case sound like the circumstances of her mother’s murder. When she sees a video that has the supposed victim’s skull, she flips out.

She confronts Prof. Gordon about that, but her boss assures her that the case is totally fictional and the skeleton isn’t her mother. But, privately, she’s not sure. While they continue to investigate the fire, including showing how a modified toaster stuffed with cardboard can start that fire, Sarah and Kathy work to make sure that Sarah didn’t unconsciously include details of a real case, whether it was Emma’s mother or something else.

Emma talks she talks to her father Drew (John Gordon Sinclair) about this turn of events; after he leaves in the middle of the night, she finds a photo of her father and mother sleeping together, but not during their marriage. When she visits Izzy Alessi (Laurie Brett), the ailing mother of her old friend Skye (Jamie Marie Leary), Izzy recalls how authorities found Emma’s mother in pieces, a detail that Emma never knew about. This sends Emma into a tailspin; she confronts her stepfather Jimmy (Phil McKee) about it and he denies withholding that information from her. She goes into Professor Gordon’s office looking for help, telling her that the timing of the photo she saw — taken while her mother was with Jimmy — has raised some suspicions.

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? There are plenty of shows where someone returns to their hometown, years after a traumatic death or other life-changing event. Most recently, the Irish dramedy The South Westerlies had the same theme, though the show itself was lighter and the things in her life the main character were revisiting were certainly not as dire.

Our Take: There’s an interesting idea behind Traces, created by Amelia Bullmore and Val McDermid, and written by Bullmore: A woman asks her forensic expert boss to help her figure out who murdered her mother almost 20 years ago. A lot of the show proceeds like a standard mystery series, with Sarah, Kathy and the SiFA staff trying to solve things like the fire that killed three people, one of which hasn’t been identified. But the overall case, involving Emma’s mother, should be a nice balance.

There are definite signs that Traces has a procedural bent, from the arson case to Kathy, someone who has a Sheldon Cooper-level inability to read social cues, asking a coworker about a man she met on a business trip suddenly coming to visit. We’re not 100 percent sure that we’ll get a case of the week along with Emma’s story or the fire will also be a continuing procedural story to demonstrate the SiFA’s skills and establish their relationship with the local police, especially DI Neil McKinven (Michael Nardone).

But the story isn’t completely set up at the end of episode 1; in the second episode, Emma will start a relationship with a mysterious man named Daniel (Martin Compston), who may or may not help Emma get to the bottom of her mother’s murder. So that may indicate the continuing mystery will slowly take precedence.

Either way, Traces definitely sets up a tense, interesting mystery, with characters whose histories are pretty solidly established. Fraser, best known on these shores for playing Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, is able to show both Sarah’s self-satisfied but not arrogant confidence in her abilities as a forensic scientist along with her natural fears that she screwed something up with the MOOC. And Windsor’s performance, showing Emma as emotionally fragile but steely and determined to find out who killed her mother, is the emotional center of the series.

Traces
Photo: Des Willie/BritBox

Sex and Skin: Nothing.

Parting Shot: We’re back at the original scene, where Emma asks Sarah for help. But this time, she shows her the picture of her mother and father in bed together, during a time where she knows that shouldn’t have happened.

Sleeper Star: Jennifer Spence is a refreshing presence as Prof. Kathy Torrance. While she’s not great at social cues and is brutally honest — she tells Sarah that when she gets distracted by a rare mistake she gets sloppy — Spence doesn’t play Torrance as some over-the-top genius savant. She’s just someone who knows her job and executes it well.

Most Pilot-y Line: What motivates Emma to search her father’s room, where she eventually finds the photo, is unclear. There’s a knock on the door of someone looking for their “stuff,” so maybe it was drugs. But she does a pretty extensive search. And when she finds the photo, there’s alarming music, but we’re not sure why, until Emma explains it to us later. That’s too much assumption on the writers’ part that the audience is paying attention that closely.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Traces has an interesting mystery at its core and a group of main characters who have shown some depth by the end of the first episode.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

Stream Traces On BritBox



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