NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Justin Hartley is one of those guys who is as comfortable in the rough outdoors as he is safe inside, enjoying creature comforts.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like room service. I like an airport greeter. But I also dig camping and stuff like that,” he says. “I love all of it. I love the idea of outdoors some days, where it’s like I’d rather look out the window. But then there are days where I’d rather be out in it.”
Hartley has lately been practicing his outdoors skills as the star of CBS’ new series “Tracker,” about a savvy, lone-wolf survivalist who makes his living earning rewards posted by police or citizens, like a mix of Bear Grylls and Kojak.
“I had just never seen a character like this before. He’s very unique,” says Hartley, who spent six seasons as Kevin Pearson on the acclaimed NBC series “This Is Us.”
“I just love the idea that this guy is smart and he also can physically kick ass. I think that’s just so cool. It’s just what I think maybe every man strives for.”
The show opens with an injured hiker waking up in the Nevada desert after losing consciousness from a leg injury and gazing into the face of Hartley, who stabilizes her leg injury and gives her hope.
“What I think we’re dealing with here is a good, old fashioned case of mild hypothermia,” he tells her. “You’re going to survive. You’re going to be A-OK.” He gets her out of danger and lands a $50,000 bounty.
It’s a fine introduction to a rootless, haunted character who lives in an Airstream attached to his pickup, ready to go wherever the next reward takes him. There’s a weekly adventure but also an ongoing attempt to explain how his dysfunctional childhood led him to this life.
“Tracker” — based on the novel “The Never Game” by Jeffery Deaver — has impressed CBS so much that it’s premiering Sunday right after the Super Bowl, one of the most coveted TV spots all year.
“It probably feels like after a Super Bowl win and you sit in the locker room with your family and all these people that you’ve worked so hard with for so many years developing something and you just say, ‘Wow, we did it. We’re on air and we’re after the Super Bowl,’” he says. “I feel like we should have a trophy or something.”
Hartley’s character is a good man but not just a Good Samaritan. He’s in it for the financial gain. “Cash is always welcome. I also take checks. Venmo, if that’s easier,” he says to families after locating their loved ones. “A reward becomes a binding contract at the moment of success.”
It doesn’t hurt that Hartley has matinee-idol looks with a lantern jaw and a physique to back that up. Both the first and second episodes have him shirtless within the first five minutes.
Ken Olin, the former “This is Us” executive producer and director who co-executive produced “Tracker” and directed the pilot, said he and Hartley were itching to roam around outside after years of being in kitchens and living rooms for “This Is Us.”
“We were both in the mood to go do something where the guy’s got a job and a gun,” Olin says. “It’s much more demanding physically than say, ‘This Is Us.’ And also, he’s pretty much is in every scene, which is a whole different load for him to carry. But he’s fantastic at it.”
Hartley’s character, Colter Shaw, might be an expert tracker and bounty hunter, but he does share some characteristics with the more domestic Kevin Pearson.
“He certainly is led by his heart in a certain way,” says the actor. “I think those are always the characters that I’ve always been drawn to my entire life, actually. They’re a bit broken.”
Hartley hopes “Tracker” could become another huge network hit like “This Is Us,” but he knows how unlikely that is. “Those things don’t happen to people like me. They don’t happen to anyone. It’s like winning the lottery,” he says.
The premise — a weekly search from people to animals to lost evidence or sentimental items — means the show has a vast resource. Or, as Hartley’s character says “I find it to be steady work. Everyone’s looking for something.”
Hartley says he wasn’t necessarily looking for more steady TV after “This Is Us” ended — just looking for anything good.
“It wasn’t necessarily genre specific — comedy, action, thriller, horror. It wasn’t necessarily TV. The medium didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to me. Co-star, guest star, lead — none of that mattered. It just had to be a really great project that I knew I was going to pour myself into and was excited about.”
“Tracker” also celebrates America’s outdoors, with visits to places network TV rarely goes — like Springland, Idaho, and Klamath Falls, Oregon — and different stories from those places.
“The physical beauty of America is just something that maybe we haven’t paid attention to for a while, and I wanted to do that,” Olin says. “I don’t want this to be formulaic.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits