I have no joy in saying this, but TV has run out of TV.
While for much of last year it got by reasonably well – and hopefully will pick up soon – the production gap created by the spring blackout has finally caught up with broadcast schedules. There’s a lack of original content, even with everything they can obtain from other stations, BBC One has been forced to fill the gaps. Traces is a forensic Scottish drama that was seen last December for the first time on Alibi. If 2020 had been a regular year, will the BBC be broadcasting Traces? It’s impossible to say.
The series is rife with talent on the plus side, including Laura Fraser, Molly Windsor, Martin Compston (playing his native Scot, not Line of Duty’s Det Sgt David Beckham) and John Gordon Sinclair.
The script is from Scott & Bailey fame by Amelia Bullmore and was created by Red, the business responsible for everything from Years and Years to Happy Valley. In other words, the pedigree is hard to beat, but there is a palpable confusion about the whole affair, on the other side, as though Traces can’t tell if it wants to be The Killing or CSI.
In any case, when it leans toward the former, it’s far more successful. Windsor plays Emma, a young woman who, years after the murder of her mother, returns to Scotland to take a job as a forensics lab technician. But she learns that the apparently fictitious case study is based on – you guessed it – the death of her mother, when she logs into an online forensics course.
Is it a coincidence here? Is there anything covered up? Fortunately, “literally everyone,” is the answer to the last question, since Traces is one of those series where each character has a habit of answering questions by pausing a little too long, looking around furtively, and then changing the subject awkwardly. We’re not quite in the world of 24, where every supporting actor was required contractually to twirl an imaginary mustache three times per episode in case at any stage he had to be outed as a mole, but we’re not far off. You’ll be pleased to know that from the first two episodes I’ve assembled a list of potential suspects.
It could be the character of Fraser, a forensics specialist who is referred to as the “fire maestro” at one point because she keeps assuring Emma that the case study is a coincidence.
It may be Jennifer Spence’s detective anthropology professor, since she gets a cryptic postcard from Australia at one point.
It may be the mother of Emma’s best friend, because she is full of crazy conspiracy theories.
It could be Emma’s dad, because he’s riding a motorcycle.
It could be Martin Compston, because he seems pretty sweet. This infinite variety of potential bad guys gives a nice panto energy to Fingerprints, though forensic scenes are much less persuasive. Where something like CSI has the power to jet through scenes on a rocket ship of impenetrable jargon, for the slowest audience, Traces takes just too much trouble to spell out anything gently.
We see a burnt out room in episode one. “There’s a window shot and one of the forensics guys says, “That’s a window.” Somebody discovers a third body and another specialist says, “That’s three bodies.” At the best of times, it’s an irritating trope, however, please, I’m sure most of us know what a window is. Some reports have been that Traces does what Line of Duty does for corruption for forensics. This is probably attributable to Compston’s inclusion. That’s not a fair analogy, though.
Line of Duty thrives on a kind of adrenalized silliness, jumping from one absurd twist to the next so quickly that the viewer doesn’t have time to realize how little sense it all makes. With the first episode threading only enough needles to make you want to watch the second episode right away, Traces is even more repetitive, which in turn threads enough to make you want to watch the third episode.
It’s far-fetched and convoluted, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to stick for a very long time in your view.
But through it, you’ll see.
Television, like I said, has run out of television. What else will you be watching?