It's been a pretty lousy autumn if you've been looking for intriguing new shows (although you really should have listened to me about CBS' ''Robbery Homicide Division''), and a disappointing one for quite a few old warhorses. I mention ''NYPD Blue'' to friends these days, for example, and they just roll their eyes -- is there anybody in that sweaty station that ain't hookin' up? (I know, I know: receptionist John -- less babysitting, more clubbing, guy!) On the other hand, a spotty new TV year makes CBS' new Without a Trace all the more noticeable. Because as uneven as it is, the series is now showcasing some of the best acting on television.
''Trace'' -- starring Anthony LaPaglia as a senior agent in the FBI's Missing Persons Squad in Manhattan -- seems to be trying to siphon off some of that ''CSI'' ratings magic and style. Created by writer Hank Steinberg but produced by ''CSI'' minder Jerry Bruckheimer, ''Trace'' cracks its cases while deploying fancy visuals, showing us ghostly images of each episode's missing person, and running suspense-building time updates along the bottom of the screen (''22.5 hours missing'').
Maybe the plots do tend toward the tired (a schoolboy held prisoner by his creepy headmaster was too ''Red Dragon''), but the stories don't really need all the visual razzle-dazzle. Not when you've got LaPaglia as agent Jack Malone.
As he reminded us playing a creased detective in the film ''Lantana'' earlier this year, LaPaglia is great at conveying the exhaustion of relentless pursuit. His droopy eyes and jowls, along with the long, flat Australian vowels applied to his American accent (''I don't give a raaaat's aaaasss''), provide an unlikely throb of energy. Watching LaPaglia inject so much shrewd intelligence into Malone's quiet, clipped questioning of a suspect, you wonder if the actor's grooving on the notion that he's making big U.S. bucks in a role that requires a fifth of his talent.
The supporting cast is just as complicatedly serene and accent adroit: Marianne Jean-Baptiste (''Secrets & Lies'') buries her Brit pronunciation and invests her desk-jockey role with searching probity. Poppy Montgomery (another Aussie, who was saucy as Marilyn Monroe in the TV miniseries ''Blonde'') and Eric Close (''Now & Again'') are more than just pretty faces. Add Enrique Murciano as the most interestingly moody of the new Latino actors on weekly drama, and ''Trace'' boasts as solid an ensemble as any series now airing.