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CBS's Tracker: Justin Hartley's Character Is a Complex Survivalist Americans Can Connect To

He's not a mercenary, but he respects the job, says EP

Max Gao
Justin Hartley, Tracker

Justin Hartley, Tracker

Michael Courtney/CBS

Justin Hartley is ready to venture out on his own. After six seasons of playing Kevin Pearson on the NBC ensemble family drama This Is Us, the veteran actor has returned to network television as the star and executive producer of Tracker, a throwback to classic P.I. shows from the 1970s and '80s — think The Rockford Files, Baretta, and Kojak  — but with a modern twist.

The new CBS drama series also reunites Hartley with a familiar face: This Is Us executive producer and director Ken Olin. "We were both thinking it would be fun to do something that was more recreational, was story-driven, had some action to it, and was real physical," Olin told TV Guide of his latest collaboration with Hartley, which they began discussing toward the end of This Is Us.

Based on Jeffrey Deaver's bestselling novel The Never Game, Tracker, which premiered after Super Bowl LVIII between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, follows Colter Shaw (Hartley), a lone-wolf survivalist who travels across the country in an Airstream and makes a living by using his expert tracking skills to help private citizens and law enforcement crack all kinds of cases.

"I haven't seen a road show for a long time. There's a reason for it that we're just discovering now. It's a lot of location work. It's physically demanding. But we both loved the rootlessness of this character," Olin said. "This is very much a single character [show], which is also fairly rare nowadays. [Justin] was like, 'Yeah, no, I love that.' So, we both went, 'Okay, this is what we want to do.'"

Tracker Review: Justin Hartley's CBS Procedural Has Promise but Plays It Too Safe

Colter's desire to never root himself in one place for too long speaks to the fact that he is, in some way, running away from the unresolved trauma of his past. For the last two decades, he has been haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father, which has fractured his surviving family beyond repair.

"There were adjustments when I brought Ben Winters on to write the pilot," Olin explained. "There were certain things that are different than the book, and [those changes] were made from a combination of things that would speak to us and also just adjusting for how we wanted to tell the story. With Justin, we wanted to bring a kind of verbal dexterity that he's so good at and a little of how he uses his humor. But [Colter's] backstory psychologically is very much the same."

During a recent break from shooting the 13-episode first season of Tracker, Olin — who rose to fame as an actor on Thirtysomething and whose producing credits include Alias and Brothers & Sisters — sat down to discuss what sets Tracker apart from other shows about lone-wolf survivalists, why Colter likes to keep people at a distance, and whether we will learn what happened to Colter's father before the end of the season.

The lone-wolf survivalist is certainly a protagonist we've heard about before — perhaps in a more negative context. What do you think sets this show apart from maybe past versions of this kind of character? How are you hoping he will connect with a larger audience?

Olin: I think Justin is a lot of it. I think people just connect with him. There's nothing grim about Justin. And we didn't want to do a dark show. My feeling is that there is definitely subject matter that is contemporary, but I think Justin is really accessible. It was never our intention that there be any political aspect to [the show]. It's [simply] about someone that was raised by a troubled parent who suffers from mental illness — probably paranoia — but also deeply values individualism and [has] a skill set that is not required for the majority of people in the world right now where there's so much technological support. I think there's something appealing about it, especially when it's Justin. Justin doesn't carry a chip on his shoulder. He's not a dark and brooding person.

One of the things we wanted to do was also celebrate some of the physical beauty of North America. After two years of being shoved inside and all the other stuff that seems to be troubling our country right now, all of that division, sometimes I think it may connect with an audience to go, "Maybe it's time to appreciate some of the beauty that is also a big part of our country." And this is a character who does. I do think some of that rootlessness or restlessness is part of the American character; there is an individualism and a self-reliance. I think those are values that people still at least respect and appreciate.

We first meet Colter in the pilot saving this woman with a badly injured leg in Black Rock Desert. It speaks to his character that he would want to help a distressed civilian in the first place, but we learn that he has pursued this line of work, in part, for the monetary reward. That poses the question: Is he a rewardist or a mercenary? How would you describe and justify his actions and motivations?

Olin: I think one of the things that makes him interesting is that he contains that duality. He's not a mercenary. He takes jobs that I think he feels are of value on the humanistic level. At the same time, for a couple of reasons, he honors and holds on to the notion that it's a job, and one of the values that he celebrates is that people deserve to be paid for a job well done. That's the contract. One of the things that he doesn't talk about, that is part of his character, is also one of the things that allows him to constantly disconnect.

He lives a rootless life because I think at the center of his character, there is a hole because of the way he was brought up, of distrust, of not being able to be sure of when his father would or would not be there. His father had a lot of paranoia and suspicion that was brought into their life, so it's an interesting thing, because when he takes the check, he can constantly remind himself that this isn't because he's such a bleeding heart and he's so soft. It's like, "Okay, now I can move on," and that's what he does. I think it's a little bracing, probably, because we're so used to sentimentalizing those things.

But in fact, this is a character who does both. He cares about these people, but he also is paid because it's a job well done. At the very root of who he is, he needs to be able to move on. Because if he doesn't, there's a lot of pain there in his childhood. There's such a thing in our world about being realistic, being realists, and this is constantly a reminder, "Oh, he's a realist. He didn't do this just out of the goodness of his heart — or did he?" I mean, he would tell himself that he's a rewardist. When he finds these things, he gets paid.

But there will be a time or a case where he is more emotional. In fact, there is some of that in the fourth episode where you go, "Is this job affecting him on a level where he's losing perspective?" You don't really see that in the first couple [episodes]. He clearly cares about people, and yet you don't ever see, "Oh, wait, he's losing perspective, he's losing professional distance." I think there will be times where that happens.

Everything We Know about Tracker

How would you say the death of Colter's father has affected him as a person, and how would you describe the relationships that he now has in the present-day with his mother and his siblings? We saw his mother at the end of the pilot and know that his estranged brother is trying to get in touch with him, so how much of them will we see between all of these cases of the week?

Olin: We're definitely going to explore it. Right now, Elwood Reid and I are really discussing, "Do we solve this mystery at the end of the season or carry it on?" To some extent, we're going to solve the mystery of "Did his brother kill him? Is that what happened? Did he fall? Was he murdered?" That will be explored. From the time he was really young, his father was unreliable, very emotional. He was emotionally unstable, so that creates a kind of instability, like, "Where are you safe?" You have a character who is being taught to survive on his own, and a young kid who's not feeling that safe at the same time. I think what you're gonna begin to see — and you see it at the end of the pilot — is, can he even trust his mother? He doesn't have the full story, and I think he chose to move on in his life like that. If that's what you grew up with, and your skill set is how to survive on your own, you go out on your own [and don't look back]. We see his mom again in the fourth episode, and by the end of the season, we'll know a lot more about his family, and we'll know more about his brother.

Patrick Bahrich and Fiona Rene, Tracker

Patrick Bahrich and Fiona Rene, Tracker

Michael Courtney/CBS

Although this is very much a one-man show, Colter also has a few characters in his orbit who assist with his cases: tech whiz Bobby (Eric Graise), old flame and attorney Reenie (Fiona Rene), and Teddi (Robin Weigert) and Velma (Abby McEnany), who give him potential cases.

Olin: There are upcoming episodes where he interacts with all of them in person, and we'll begin to learn more about that. I think the biggest thing is that you go, "Oh, okay, Bobby is a little brother. Is Reenie a friend? Is there a romantic thing there? Is there a sexual thing?" There's something about them that just crackles, but they're not sure what it is. And then there's sort of a more familial or maternal relationship with Teddi and Velma, so he fills out a kind of chosen family. He has surrogates for those things, but they're also a little bit at a distance. He doesn't live with any of them, which suits him.

But listen, there is a procedural drive to the show. It's great that it's not formulaic. Early on, [CBS Entertainment executive] Amy Reisenbach wrote to me and said, "I don't want this to be formulaic." Maybe it's a risk, but he doesn't have to adhere to the same laws that most procedurals have to adhere to. If you're law enforcement or a lawyer or a doctor, there's certain parameters. He doesn't have the same parameters in his life. So it will still be driven by his jobs, but there will be more and more opportunities to see the way that he relates to these people illuminate his character and his need to move on and his restlessness. We will get to that, but in a show like this, a little bit goes a long way, and we're never going to put Colter on the couch. It's not who he is. That's not what we want to do. But those relationships definitely inform who he is, and we'll see that.

Tracker airs Sundays at 9/8c on CBS.