‘Tracker’ Review: Justin Hartley Plays a Gig-Economy Jack Reacher in CBS’ Fast-Moving but Bland Thriller

When it was originally announced that CBS was doing a series based on the main character from Jeffrey Deaver’s novel The Never Game, it was called The Never Game, which made sense.

Several months later, CBS announced that the series, created by Ben H. Winters, was changing its title to Tracker, a name that I rather consistently confuse with Amazon’s Lee Child series, Reacher.

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This also makes sense and, in fact, borders on ideal for CBS. With Reacher following recent streaming protocol and producing eight-episode seasons that can air “whenever the pieces come together,” there is probably an audience appetite for a cut-rate version — a series that delivers a lot of the same lizard-brain pleasures on a broadcast schedule capable of producing 15 or even 22 episodes of lone-wolf vigilante justice in easily digestible 41-minute weekly morsels.

So if you accept that Tracker isn’t exactly Reacher 2.0, but it’s close enough to offer the equivalent laundry-folding diversion, it has virtues even if, as a TV show, it’s beyond forgettable. Two days after watching the first four Tracker installments, I can barely remember a single standalone plot, much less the overall series mythology, which is much less interesting than the show seems to believe it is. But in Justin Hartley, Tracker has a solid action leading man, even if thus far the series hasn’t come close to tapping into any of the things that made Hartley so effective for six seasons on This Is Us.

Hartley plays Colter Shaw — “Colter,” like “Tracker,” has that appealing “Reacher” mouth-feel, coincidentally or not — a so-called “rewardist.” This means that Colter, who travels the Northwest in a macho GMC truck lugging a shiny Airstream trailer behind him, uses a particular set of skills — accumulated through his childhood with a paranoid survivalist father — to collect rewards for tracking down missing people and solving basic mysteries of that ilk.

Like Jack Reacher, Colter is a roaming samurai who can’t avoid attracting attention with his size and his lack of interest in working with local law enforcement. Like Jack Reacher, Colter is drawn to trouble. And even when he isn’t, trouble finds him. Like Jack Reacher, Colter frequently encounters female “characters” whose names he barely learns before he beds them and moves along to the next town.

Unlike Jack Reacher, Colter has a team behind him, even if he works alone in the field. In Teddi (Robin Weigert) and Velma (Abby McEnany), he has a pair of dispatchers who spend all of their time at home with their rescue pets and pottery, but occasionally supply Colter with assignments and basic research. Bobby (Eric Graise) is an expert hacker who… finds things on the Internet but, thankfully, has yet to make a single reference to “The Dark Web” in the episodes I’ve seen.

So far, Colter has only interacted with these characters via phone. That’s not the case with Reenie (Fiona Rene), an attorney who seems to have the time and resources to fly to wherever Colter happens to be in order to bail him out of jail — local law enforcement tends to chafe at his renegade ways — and generally bust his balls for that one time they slept together and he didn’t call or something. In an ideal world, they would have will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry since Reenie looks at Colter like she’s a cat and he’s a mouse. But he looks at her like a female “character” whose name he barely learned before they had a one-night-stand and he moved along to the next town.

More than anything, Reenie’s constant presence on an open retainer underlined one of my greatest points of confusion about the show: I’m not convinced that Tracker proves that what Colter Shaw does is a workable business plan for anybody involved. If he’s collecting $5,000 bounties on random missing people, why does he need Teddi and Velma, who don’t seem to do anything that Colter couldn’t accomplish by walking into a post office and checking the flyer board (which he could do without paying what I assume is a healthy commission, given that Velma and Teddi don’t seem to have any other jobs or trackers in their employ)? I respect Tracker for not doing an origin pilot — explaining how the characters met and came to work together and all of that — but four episodes is enough time to give some answers to what feel like pretty rudimentary and foundational questions like, “What sense does this premise make?”

It’s a premise that confuses all the characters in Tracker outside of Colter’s sphere, where a running joke is various people hearing what Colter does and either asking, “Is that a job?” or trying to suggest that he’s a bounty hunter or a mercenary or any number of less savory-sounding positions.

The problem here is that while Jack Reacher possesses a righteous hatred of injustice and a general disinterest in money, allowing him to travel the country righting wrongs, the Gig Economy Jack Reacher in Tracker has no notable motivation. He kinda likes to right wrongs and he has survivalist abilities that might not otherwise have an outlet, but why we need somebody like Colter Shaw to do jobs that law enforcement kinda used to attempt to do is unclear. There was a wave of “Let’s crowdsource law enforcement!” shows a couple of years ago that almost all failed, because it was a dumb idea. But this is a dumb middle ground in which Colter Shaw is neither likable nor interestingly unlikable in his pursuit. It doesn’t help that his backstory is perfunctory — dad taught him to skin squirrels and climb rocks and then died under shady circumstances — and isn’t a vaguely compelling complement to the episodic storylines.

And the episodic storylines are… fine-ish. Each episode — a teenage boy seemingly runs off with his father, an accountant falls in with a cult, a teenage boy runs off from his boarding school, a van-life nomad goes missing — has the feeling of an entirely truncated novel, even though none of the Deaver novels about Colter are used as source material. In each episode, it’s a premise, a badly staged action scene or two and then a hasty resolution, sometimes with elements of Colter’s past worked in — Wendy Crewson plays his mother and, thus far, hasn’t been given much to do. There isn’t enough meat on any of these narrative bones for the series to deliver even a single memorable guest performance. Other than giving McEnany and Weigert — actors better known as cable favorites — the chance at a CBS procedural paycheck for what looks like it couldn’t have been more than an hour or two of work per episode, none of the supporting regular performances are notable either.

For his part, Hartley swaggers effectively. Perhaps the best thing about his This Is Us performance was how he took a character who had been a narcissist since childhood and showed the root of that attitude and the vulnerability under it. Nothing similar is evident here, but Hartley growls in a good-natured way throughout and has the stature to intimidate people even if the action choreography is completely subpar. Mostly, he gives the impression of maximum proficiency and somehow isn’t completely insufferable when he condescendingly lectures people on basic outdoorsy skills like “building a fire” or “gardening.”

I am, of course, picking nits for a show that’s almost explicitly designed to evade nitpicking. Everything in Tracker is designed to be so quick and disposable that if you’re asking questions, that means you’re watching the show too closely. Assuming that most people in its target audience probably won’t have any interest in questions, and will have more interest in checking their phones or monitoring the roast in the oven or clipping toenails, Tracker feels well-suited for a long broadcast run.

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