Justin Hartley is Tracker

David B Morris
6 min readFeb 27, 2024

And He Finally Achieves The Leading Man Status He Has Been Searching for Nearly 20 Years

Before we were deluged with superhero movies, even before the Arrow-verse began, Justin Hartley was Oliver Queen. He debuted on the sixth season of Smallville, which was about to move from the introductory phase of the life of Clark Kent into a more advanced version of the world of DC, something that either immensely improved or ruined the show, depending on who you ask.

What I do know is was that in many ways Hartley was a brilliant Green Arrow, less troubled and more congenial then the version Stephen Amell would make his own, a contrast to Lex Luthor who in this show had been an old friend of his growing up. Even at that age Hartley had the good looks and leading man status that he’s always had, and there were supposedly plans for a Green Arrow spin-off that never came to fruition. Instead he was one of the few stalwarts during the final three seasons of the show.

After Smallville ended, Hartley spent the next five years with semi-regular roles either in series that failed (Emily Owens, M.D.) or in later seasons of shows that were on the decline (Revenge). He spent a couple of years on The Young and the Restless and then landing the role of the lifetime as Kevin in the classic This is Us. Hartley was, unfortunately, one of the only actors in the series to never get an Emmy nomination for his work (though the Critics Choice Award nominated him four consecutive years, so go us) but his work was at the level of Sterling Brown and Chrissy Metz, his siblings. Struggling with his career, dealing with alcoholism, a constant string of failed relationship and the most complicate relationship of all with Randall, Hartley had demons in a way his fellow siblings did but that they often never realized and that his mother never seemed to get.

Now a full year after This is Us came to an end; his co-stars have been moving on to other projects. Brown has been working more in movies (he has been recently nominated for Best Supporting Actor for American Fiction); Milo Ventimiglia had a moment of brilliance in the gone-too-soon The Company You Keep and now Hartley has finally been cast in the lead in Tracker, one of the few new broadcast series that will likely air in what remains of the 2024 season. CBS has been willing to put its weight behind it in a way that most networks don’t: it aired after this year’s Super Bowl, the first time in decades a network has been willing to debut an untested project rather than a favored series. (How many people stayed up to watch it after the series went into overtime is an open question.) CBS is known for formula shows and I have little doubt that many would consider it just some variation on it. Still, having watched three episodes I can say it has more than its merit.

Much of this comes from the presence of Hartley, who in a sense is tweaking the persona of his Oliver Queen — and possibly the kind of character Kevin Pearson would play — enough in the character of Colter Shaw. Colter calls himself a ‘rewardist’ (he is told repeatedly that’s not a thing, something he keeps saying is). Colter lives out of a trailer in the West — the first few episodes have seen him in Colorado, Idaho and Montana — and his job is tracking down missing persons who disappear and claiming the reward that’s offer. He is not exactly a bounty hunter, but he has the same level of willingness to bend the law to the point where it might snap in order to help the missing people.

Colter has a firm grip on how things work to a statistical science, something he has no trouble using to comfort people in their moments of trauma and try to talk people with guns from using on him. He also has the ability to handle himself in a fight, which he does to defend himself — or causes depending on how you look at it. He is aided in his work with his partners’/ surrogate big sisters a lesbian couple played by Robin Weigert and Abby Mcenany, neither of whom are stretching the kind of characters they play that much. Colter is also aided. He has a tech expert Bob Exley (Eric Graise) and his frenemy Rennie Green, an attorney who once shared his bed and now thinks he’s a piece of detritus. Colter has the great ability to get women to sleep with him on a moment’s notice, but he also doesn’t form attachments easily — which makes sense when you learn how he grew up.

During his childhood, his father (Lee Tergesen in flashbacks) went a little crazy and took their family off the grid. He basically raised them in the wilderness but was also bipolar convinced people were out to get them. One day when his mother was late coming home, his father was trying to get them to leave without her and both he and his elder brother ran off. By now Colter, who was the best student of the siblings, tracked them down — and found his father dead, and his brother running away. They haven’t spoken in twenty years.

Going through the episodes is the fact that his brother has spent the last three episodes calling him. He went to see his mother in the pilot and asked him if there was something he needed to know about what happened that night. His mother told him just to block the number. His brother has been calling Rennie recently and he gave the same instructions. In the second episode, it seems very clear that someone visited the family home but his mother chose to say she got nervous. What exactly is going on is not clear, but I hope that this is not yet another fine procedural that gets bogged down in an underlying mythology. (Then again Tracker is based on Jeffery Deaver’s The Never Game so there is a very real chance that this backstory may be part of the canon.)

The more Hartley ages, the better a performer he becomes. There’s a tough façade that he shows the rest of the world as well as many of the people who try to stop him. However when it comes to the people he tries to save, he shows warmth and compassion along with his honesty. His mindset is statistical and he is a realist. In last night’s episode when a woman told him that her sister had been missing for more than fifteen months, he told her it was almost certain she was dead. The woman told him she’d made peace with that but she wanted to know for sure. Halfway through the episode when they found her sister’s van, Colter kept trying to talk her out of coming, but she insisted.

Colter has an ability, almost superhuman, to know when he is being lied to. Sometimes, he’s direct about it — like in the pilot, when after talking to a missing teenager’s family, he asked his mother why he was lying to her — but most times he keeps it in check. He doesn’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the room or the strongest; but he is determined to do his job. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tracker is set in what used to be the frontier; it’s not much of a stretch to see Colter Shaw as some version of Shane or Paladin, only in his case, he does not bring about death but tries to save lives before moving on to the next small town. In that sense, Tracker is a formula but it’s closer to a modern western that a crime drama.

I won’t go out of my way to say that Tracker is as earth shattering as Found or as genre-breaking as So Help Me Todd. But as entertainment goes, it’s more than solid. How much of a future it will have is an open question — it’s airing on Sunday nights against American Idol — but it is on a network that’s in better shape than ABC was when The Company You Keep died. It’s entertaining and I’m glad to see Hartley finally got the leading man role he’s deserved for twenty years. When will Christy Metz grace us with her presence?

My score: 3.5 stars.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.