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In defense of 'Without a Trace'

An open letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin:

Say WHAT? A fine of $3.6 million levied on CBS stations and affiliates for showing an episode of "Without a Trace?"

It's only a mature sense of decorum and discipline on my part that leads me to refrain from suggesting one place where such a ridiculous fine might well be placed (hint: the sun never shines there).

You're new on the job, they say. And, thus, in a hurry to make a name for yourself as a moral cleanup man, wielding a mean mop and bucket of Spic and Span. Far be it from me to sneer at ambitious bureaucrats, no matter what the temptation.

But when you slap record fines on stations showing "Without a Trace," for pity's sake, you instantly turn yourself from Mr. Clean into a buffoon with one earring. You might as well have put the plastic bucket on your head and done a samba with the mop in the middle of the Rose Bowl.

I'm one of the faithful millions who actually watch "Without a Trace." And, believe me, it registers with me when a show veers off the moral center. That happens when you've been writing periodically about TV as long as I have.

And I honestly don't remember a teen sex orgy so offensive in a December 2004 episode of the show that it registered more than a blip on the content Richter scale. But let's just say for purposes of argument that I've either become hopelessly, decadently jaded and/or that my memory has been enfeebled by the years. Let's just say that there WAS something a-tilt about a scene on the show that revealed teens (ahhh, the children; we must at all costs protect the children) doing things to one another that people probably don't do in FCC conferences (though I've never been to one so I don't really know).

As a father of a grown woman who was once a teenager (and an uncle many times over), I can say there is indeed a lot of parental worry -- and even outright terror -- that comes with love for those in their teen years.

But boy did you ever pick the wrong TV show. "Without a Trace" is not only a 10 p.m. show but there is no way that even its sleaziest and most exploitive lurch into ratings-begging sensationalism wasn't occupied by a stern admonition -- a la the 11 p.m. local news at its cheesiest -- that at a certain time of night, parents really ought to know where their children are.

It's a show about an FBI Missing Persons Bureau, for heaven's sake.

This is a show that -- no matter what else it does -- takes family and parenthood very, very seriously. The reason some of us like it, in fact, is that every now and then we can recognize thoroughly plausible grown-up behavior on it.

Believe me, I have no special love for the show's producer Jerry Bruckheimer. His movies -- most notably "Pearl Harbor" -- are often gaudy megaplex blight, even if his TV shows are the exact opposite. One of them -- which happens to be TV's most popular show -- even featured a character named "Jeff Simon" as a humiliated stalker killer. Mine is indeed a simpler and more common name than, say, Jerry Bruckheimer (Google it and you'll also come up with a Vegas magician and George Thorogood's drummer) but the whole thing still seemed a bit rank to me, not to mention puerile.

But he and his minions are on the side of the angels this time. You? Well, not so much.

If this is the way you expect to assert FCC moral leadership and/or re-open the tedious old TV content debate, you might as well join Pat Robertson's loose lip brigade.

A reasonable debate presumes two sides. A bully stealing a kid's lunch money -- no matter how big and rich the kid -- is not one side of a debate. It's just a bully stealing a kid's lunch money, and an unusually thick-headed bully at that.


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