'The Locator' finds raw human emotions

The title of "

which premieres on WE TV tonight, is a bit misleading.

As it is a docu-drama following pro-bono cases of a man who has built a career tracking down people separated by adoption, divorce and other personal disruptions, the viewer might expect a private-eye reality show -- scenes revealing the clever use of the Internet or sleuthing through last-seen-in towns. But the process by which


actually finds people occupies only a tiny portion of "The Locator;" in early episodes it seems to involve little more than a few phone calls.

Instead, each half-hour episode revolves around the emotional distress of fractured families, the shock of the newly located and the tear-jerking reunions. Like those Very Special Episodes Oprah sometimes hosts, only shorter and every week.

In the pilot, we meet the Sloop family who has been trying for 36 years to locate Mikey, Marsha's son and Jerry and Debra's half-brother, who was taken by his father when Mikey was 2 years old. The back story is fuzzy but they have clearly spent considerable effort trying to find him. Dunn is impressed. Before he agrees to help, he earnestly runs through what will become a signature of the show: the list of possible outcomes. Mikey may be dead. He may be alive and want no part of "this" (which could refer to his family or being on a TV show). Or, he could be delighted to be found, and filmed.

Mike is quickly found, by means that are not explained, and Dunn flies out to meet him. Mike is shocked to learn he has a brother (also a sister but for some reason Debra doesn't come up in his meetings with Dunn). He is curious to meet his family, he says, though a circle of friends is assembled to discuss the pros and cons of such a reunion. (A moment of doubt will also emerge as a regular part of "The Locator.")

I won't spoil the ending, though believe me when I tell you it doesn't matter. The clients and stories change -- early episodes include a daughter seeking her birth mother and a mother seeking the twins "stolen" then put up for adoption by her much-older husband -- but the tension of whether or not the missing will be found is so clearly imposed, it might as well be dropped.

In terms of hows and whys the various separations occurred, the narratives are very sketchy and rushed because "The Locator" is all about the reveal, with every meeting milked for as much heart-string pluckage as possible.

But what it lacks in nuance, "The Locator" makes up for in blunt-instrument effectiveness. No matter how vague and manipulative the show may feel, no matter how self-aggrandizing Dunn may seem (as he steals away from each reunion, though still firmly in camera frame), if tears do not at least well in your eyes as the stories unfold, if you don't choke up just a little, well, you'd better check your wrist for a pulse or your basement for pods.

The people are alarmingly real, their reactions often as far from Hollywood as you can get. Although in every case you sense there is much more to the story than what has been presented -- legalities, explanations, events of the missing years -- the joy, fear, anger and regret such reunions inevitably produce are definitely not missing. So if you're in the market for some quick-hit, no-questions-asked catharsis, "The Locator" just might be your show.