Review by C.J. Bunce
In its second season, Scotland’s crime drama Traces is continuing down the path where other great British series have missed the mark. Unforgotten betrayed its heroine in its last season, loading on so much darkness, challenges, and losses, the writers let the forces of evil and real-life struggles beat down what was a superb, brilliant detective. Traces is challenging its two masterminds of mystery solving: Laura Fraser (A Knight’s Tale, Doctor Who, Breaking Bad)‘s arson expert and professor Sarah Gordon, and Jennifer Spence‘s (Supernatural, Continuum, Stargate, Tru Calling) equally brilliant professor and scientist sleuth Kathy Torrance. But in this series it’s the challenges that make its lead characters really shine.
Traces is BritBox’s tightly, cleverly written series following a team of college forensic professors, scientists, and anthropologists and their work with the local Dundee, Scotland, detective branch to solve crimes. The first season was a fictional account centered on the case of a woman who went missing during the real-life Tall Ships festival in Dundee in August 2001, whose body was later found in a shallow grave. The plot closely followed some of the more realistic and mysterious bits of any number of episodes of the true crime series Forensic Files, while working in some well-developed characters–enough to make for a compelling ongoing series. Similar in format to the two Bletchley Circle series, this story centers on the work of SIFA, the Scottish Institute of Forensic Science, headed up Gordon and Torrance, who lead the way in analyzing traces of evidence to solve the unsolved, from learning the source of a local illegal drug distributor to assisting the local police on the latest suspected arson.
The series is unique in that it lets a band of strong women characters revel in their intelligence. Their quirks and relationships only serve to bolster their determination and strength. As an example, in the seeason opener Professor Torrance is challenged by the new dean, and although she opposes the dean’s methodology and approach, she shows viewers how professionals handle–or at least should handle–such actions in real life, by leaning into the approach and putting her own spin on the idea. She’s even humorous about it, and her character is in part defined by her ability to make all these aspects of her uniqueness traits that every promising young scientist watching the program might aspire to themselves. With Professor Gordon all those distasteful quirks of Sherlock Holmes are pushed aside. Yes, her strength is not in social situations, but it doesn’t have any effect on her relationships or duties.
This season continues the efforts of twenty-something professional scientist Emma Hedges, played by Molly Windsor (Cheat, The Runaways), still pursuing her boyfriend’s father as the murderer of her mother many years ago. That past is inseparable from her career choice. As that story winds down, the more interesting case is the new one: a bombing with a type of explosive that is making it difficult to determine who the target was, let alone who was behind the crime. Michael Nardone (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Dune, Shetland, In Plain Sight) is back as level-headed, real-life-as-you-get detective (and good cop) D.I. Neil McKinven. In the second season look forward to the writers finally addressing that barely-there relationship with Professor Gordon. Martin Compston (Monarch of the Glen, Ripper Street, Line of Duty) is back as Daniel, Emma’s doomed boyfriend, and Vincent Regan (Snow White and the Huntsman, Poldark, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) is Daniel’s vile father.
All good dramas need great humor, and that is supplied from Professor Torrance’s banter in every scene and the office rendezvous point where the office assistant seems to always be surrounded by cake, always worthy of criticism, apparently. Show writers Amelia Bullmore (Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, State of Play, Black Cab, Scott & Bailey) (who is also an actor) and Jess Williams (Call the Midwife, Grantchester) have created one of the strongest, funniest, and all-around best LGBTQ characters yet.
Traces continues at the top of the class in the pool of great short-form British/Irish/Scottish/UK police procedurals and mysteries. It’s more intriguing than many of the highly reviewed series in the genre reviewed at borg over the years, including the recent The Salisbury Poisonings, Dublin Murders, Quirke, Roadkill, The Silence, The Five, The Missing, Thirteen, The ABC Murders, Broadchurch, and Collateral. It’s one of those shows where you can hardly wait for the next episode, like those great ongoing series Shetland, Case Histories, Sea of Souls, and Hinterland.