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Justin Hartley as Colter Shaw just hangin out of the door of his cool trailer in a cool white t-shirt, very cool Photo: Lindsay Siu/CBS

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You can find all of 2024’s media anxieties in the CBS drama Tracker

You ever feel like we’re all just… lost? What if there was a show about a man who found us

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Taken one way, Tracker, the new CBS drama premiering after the Super Bowl, is perhaps the most generic procedural ever devised. It stars a blandly charming white guy (Justin Hartley of This Is Us fame to most, Smallville fame to me) who makes a living finding missing people and collecting reward money, using his skills as a survivalist to travel the country and notice things others don’t, charming a local lady cop or doctor along the way. On the surface, Tracker is about as generic as network dramas come, the most smooth-brained 42 minutes you can spend between ads shouting WHOPPER WHOPPER WHOPPER WHOPPER or listing pharmaceutical side effects. But I think Tracker is fascinating, actually, based entirely around what it isn’t about.

Colter Shaw (yes, that’s his name) is notably not a cop, nor is he a detective. He calls himself, rather seriously, “a rewardist” — because he tracks down missing people for reward money, which he always collects. This gives Tracker’s protagonist a mercenary edge that the show is not particularly interested in exploring; he is very clearly in it for the money but also a nice guy who wants to get involved and help people, as long as they can pay. Colter’s civilian status is also uninterrogated — since he’s not a cop, the people he questions on his journey to find that episode’s missing person have no real reason to cooperate with him, especially if they’re involved in some criminality.

But again: Shaw has no superlative skills to show off nor weird character quirks that help him navigate such roadblocks. He’s not a prickly Sherlock Holmes type, nor does he have an unusual talent like immediately knowing when someone is lying or rigging together elaborate gizmos out of pantry items. In Tracker, things just work out for Colter, because if they didn’t the show would stop in its tracks.

Colter Shaw, the Tracker, kneels in the woods in pain in the CBS drama Tracker Photo: Michael Courtney/CBS

Because of all this, Tracker comes across as an extraordinarily anxious show, one carefully built to not alienate anyone, ultimately being compelling to no one. It doesn’t center cops to avoid being called copaganda. It is decidedly not-urban, set primarily in the verdant expanses of Real America to tap into that Yellowstone Red State appeal — but not without alienating liberal viewers interested in representation. Colter is notably supported by a cozy lesbian couple who finds new rewards for him to track, and a tech support guy of color with prosthetic limbs. (None of these characters share scenes directly with Colter, because they mostly just talk to him on the phone.)

Tracker’s anodyne nature is a little puzzling given its pedigree. The series is an adaptation of Jeffery Deaver’s The Never Game, the first of four Colter Shaw novels with a truly wild plot summary that Tracker doesn’t come within spitting distance of. Co-executive producer Ben Winters is also an acclaimed novelist with a brief but promising TV resume thus far, previously working on FX’s Legion. Read generously, this is just the reality of getting a network drama on the air in 2024 — starting as generically as possible just to get a green light, and amassing the momentum to get truly weird with it. (Much like previous very good CBS dramas The Good Wife and Person of Interest.)

At least, that’s what I want to believe. There are so many meaty directions Tracker could go that it seems like it takes real willpower to not explore them, based on the first two episodes. Of course, the show could break in an even more uncomfortable direction — I’ve not seen a show more primed to just do a whole-ass Sound of Freedom arc right out of the box. Honestly, though? That would probably be more memorable than the version of the show we have right now.