Traces review – this is what happens when TV runs out of new shows

The Scottish drama is loaded with talent, but would the BBC be showing it if 2020 hadn’t left a dearth of original programmes?

It brings me little joy to say this, but television has run out of television. Although it managed to coast along fairly well for the better part of last year – and will hopefully kick back in soon enough – the gap in production caused by the spring lockdown has finally caught up with the schedules. There is a dearth of original programming and BBC One has been forced to plug the holes with whatever it can grab from other broadcasters.

Which brings us to exhibit A. Traces is a Scottish forensics drama that was first shown on Alibi last December. Would the BBC be broadcasting Traces if 2020 had been a normal year? It is hard to say. In the plus column, the series is loaded with talent, featuring the likes of Laura Fraser, Molly Windsor, Martin Compston (playing his native Scottish, rather than his Det Sgt David Beckham of Line of Duty) and John Gordon Sinclair. It is written by Amelia Bullmore, of Scott & Bailey, and was made by Red, which has been responsible for everything from Years and Years to Happy Valley. The pedigree is hard to beat, in other words.

But, on the other hand, there is a tangible uncertainty about the whole affair, as if Traces can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be The Killing or CSI. Certainly, it is much more effective when it leans towards the former. Windsor plays Emma, a young woman who returns to Scotland years after her mother’s murder to take a job as a technician in a forensics laboratory. However, when she logs on to an online forensics course, she realises that the ostensibly fictional case study is based on – you guessed it – her mother’s death. Is it a coincidence? Was there a coverup? Who could possibly be to blame?

Thankfully, the answer to the last question is “literally anyone”, since Traces is one of those shows where every character has a habit of answering questions by pausing for slightly too long, furtively glancing around and then awkwardly changing the subject. We are not quite in the world of 24, where every supporting actor was contractually obliged to twiddle an imaginary moustache three times an episode in case they needed to be outed as a mole somewhere down the line, but we are not far off.

You will be pleased to know that I have compiled a list of potential suspects from the first two episodes. It could be Fraser’s character, a forensics expert referred to at one point as a “fire maestro”, because she constantly reassures Emma that the case study is a coincidence. It could be Jennifer Spence’s professor of detective anthropology, because at one point she receives a mysterious postcard from Australia. It could be Emma’s best friend’s mum, because she is full of wild conspiracy theories. It could be Emma’s father, because he rides a motorbike. It could be Martin Compston, because he seems quite nice. This endless array of possible villainy gives Traces an enjoyably panto energy.

The forensics scenes, meanwhile, are much less convincing. Where something like CSI has the nous to blast through scenes on a rocket ship of impenetrable jargon, Traces takes far too much care to gently spell out everything for its slowest viewer. In episode one, we see a burned-out room. There is a shot of a window and one of the forensics experts says: “That’s a window.” Someone finds a third dead body and another expert says: “That’s three dead bodies.” It is an annoying trope at the best of times, but, please, I am sure most of us know what a window is.

There has been some talk of Traces doing for forensics what Line of Duty did for corruption. This is no doubt thanks to the inclusion of Compston. However, it is not a fair comparison. Line of Duty thrives on a kind of adrenalised silliness, leapfrogging from preposterous twist to preposterous twist so quickly that the audience doesn’t have time to realise how little sense it makes. Traces is much more laborious.

That said, the first episode threads just enough needles to make you want to immediately watch the second; that in turn threads enough to make you want to watch the third. It is far-fetched and convoluted and it doesn’t seem like it will stick in your mind for particularly long. But you will see it through. Like I said, television has run out of television. What else are you going to watch?

• This article was amended on 5 January 2021 to correct a photo credit provided by the BBC. The photo of Molly Windsor in Traces was taken by Vishal Sharma, not Des Willie as originally stated.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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