The broadcast networks are panicking a bit. Cable shows are not only dominating the Emmy award nominations, they are creating the much desired water-cooler buzz. People want to watch Breaking Bad in real time and dissect it immediately after. Fans may talk about NCIS, TV’s number-one drama, with the same fervor, but the show doesn’t have the same place in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Into this TV fray comes Hostages, one of the most promising new dramas of the fall season and CBS’s attempt to imitate the model that works so well on cable. Dylan McDermott stars as FBI hostage negotiator Duncan Carlisle. But in the grand tradition of anti-hero protagonists, Duncan’s not such a great guy. He wants to kill the President of the United States, so he takes Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and her family hostage. The deal? Dr. Sanders must kill the President during his upcoming surgery or her family will die. “Don’t think of it as killing the President,” Duncan tells her. “Think of it as saving your family.”
The drama will run uninterrupted for 15 episodes, instead of the 22 episodes network shows typically have per season. (Fox’s The Following also employed this strategy last spring, as did CBS this summer with Under the Dome). Each episode will be approximately one day—so the whole first season will span about two weeks. Producers also promise that viewers will learn Duncan’s motivation for the crime at about the halfway point of the first season.
The pilot sets up multiple directions for the show to go in. There’s the title problem of the hostage situation and the underlying mystery (Why is Duncan’s wife in a coma? Why does the Vice President want the President killed? Why does Duncan?). But there’s also Ellen’s husband Brian’s (Tate Donovan) affair. Her daughter Morgan’s (Quinn Shephard) secret pregnancy. Her son Jake’s (Mateus Ward) drug dealing. Plus the pilot hinted at some interoffice politics at Ellen’s work, and each member of Duncan’s team must have his or her own reason for wanting to be part of this (I’m most intrigued by Billy Brown’s Archer). With all the promising plot permutations, the show reminds me (in the best possible way) of The Good Wife, which deftly balances the case of the week, with Peter’s political career, Alicia’s love triangle and the law firm power struggle.
The series really suits its stars. No one does righteous indignation like McDermott. He’s not much for emoting and tends to hit the same dramatic note, but that may suit this role just fine. “Sometimes you have to do a bad thing for a good reason,” he intones. And after being traumatized by his roles on American Horror Story, it’s nice to see him on a show where I’m fairly certain his motivation won’t turn out to be that he’s the bastard son of a serial killer.
With her exaggerated facial expressions, Collette really brings Ellen’s struggle right into the viewer’s living room. She’s a formidable opponent for Duncan, and their conflict should drive the series.
While watching a pilot, I always ask myself, “Is there enough here to keep this show going?” And there definitely is with Hostages. Sure, there are things to worry about—the teens could become more annoying than interesting (a problem that has plagued Homeland). Or the central mystery could become unnecessarily convoluted (see the downfall of Revenge last season). Or the whole “Will Ellen kill the President or not?” could be dragged out to a tedious point. But, right now, there’s a lot here to be optimistic about. I’m not sure if I’m ready to be held hostage by the show quite yet, but I’ll be tuning in next week.