Can NBC’s Taken Recapture What Made the Film Franchise So Successful?

TV Features Taken
Can NBC’s Taken Recapture What Made the Film Franchise So Successful?

Bryan Mills, you may have heard, is a man with “a very particular set of skills.” But the character, inaugurated by Liam Neeson in the wildly popular film franchise—the Taken trilogy has earned nearly $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts—hasn’t made the same splash on television: The first season of NBC’s version, which follows the younger Mills (played here by Clive Standen) after the death of his sister, failed to win over critics or register with audiences. (The Season One finale, for instance, attracted a disappointing 4.4 million total viewers.) Whether a function of the serialized narrative, the sprawling ensemble, or film-to-TV adaptation fatigue, the Mills whose grizzled effectiveness made Taken a silver-screen success hasn’t yet translated to the broadcast drama.

Enter Greg Plageman.

The Person of Interest and Cold Case veteran, now Taken’s executive producer and showrunner, understands the DNA of the network procedural, and as the series enters its second season, he’s remade it in that image: In an effort to hew closer to the film franchise, Plageman has re-invented Taken as a case-of-the-week action thriller, in which Mills develops the “resourcefulness” at the center of the movies—Plageman compares the character to Jason Bourne and James Bond—in the service of highly topical, globe-trotting missions. (Season Two includes episodes about sex trafficking and prisoners in North Korea, among other ripped-from-the-headlines subjects.)

“I know someone’s gonna get taken. If someone doesn’t get taken, a life is gonna get taken, or something extremely valuable is gonna get taken,” Plageman says, sitting in the center of Season Two’s main set, a mock-up of the abandoned turn-of-the-century bank that Mills and his handler, private security expert Christina Hart (Jennifer Beals), have repurposed as their home base. “There are so many crazy things that are happening in the news—this isn’t going to Law & Order, but it should operate on a level of, ‘Is this happening right now? Is that possible?’ And the answer to that question should be ‘yes.’ Because if it’s not, it seems too far-fetched to me.”

As part of the series’ reboot, the Season Two premiere, in which Hart brings together a new team to help Mills escape a black site Mexican prison, functions much like a pilot, according to new cast member Adam Goldberg, who plays a gray hat hacker named Kilroy.

“The first episode of this season felt like it had a pilot/premise type structure to it, so I didn’t really feel like I was getting on some fast-moving train that I had to figure out where I fit into it,” Goldberg says, when I ask him about the challenges of joining a series midstream. “Because the whole internal structure of not just the show, but of the characters in the show, what their roles are now, is different. It’s all kind of laid out there.”

Along with a former Army logistician named Santana (played by Jessica Camacho), Mills, Hart and Kilroy form the streamlined core of the new Taken, which Plageman describes as an effort to replace “redundant” characters with those whose skills are “complimentary” to Mills’ own, and thus to create space for the audience to become invested in each episode’s guest stars.

“Let’s see that guy who, when thrust into a certain situation, can take the mantle of someone else’s situation on and make the situation right for them,” Plageman says, citing Six Feet Under and House as inspirations. “And we have to establish that each week in the show. Who is the person that I care about? Who is the person that he’s trying to make this right for?”

As Taken moves deeper into its second season, the result is a combination of episodic and serialized elements that allows for the storytelling to feel high stakes without leaning on bombast. In the second episode, “Quarry,” for instance, Mills must help the key witness in a murder investigation survive the elements when their plane crashes in the wilderness; later episodes feature flashbacks focused on the main characters.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make a show where you threaten national security every week,” Plageman says. “It’s ridiculous… Only so many suitcase nukes before people just yawn.”

For Standen, these are the most appealing narratives, even if the focus on Mills’ missions means that he spends most of the week filming on his own with the crew, often on location in the sometimes inhospitable Canadian climate. (Taken is filmed in the Toronto area.)

“The stories don’t all have to be about government cover-ups and conspiracies,” he says. “The stories I love that come in every third episode or so are the very human stories, which is just about some guy or girl that the world doesn’t really care about, and that the police aren’t fighting for, and the CIA aren’t doing anything… Bryan is the equalizer. He’s the guy that comes in and goes, ‘I can relate to you,’ and he fights their battle for them.”

Still, rebooting a TV series that’s already had a season to set patterns, or fall into ruts, is not without its challenges, for returning cast members and new ones alike. Beals calls the decision to write the rest of the supporting cast out of the series “a difficult transition”—and a situation she’s never experienced before—though she admits that she’s generally resistant to change.

“It’s even hard to change my nail color, for Christ’s sake,” she says, laughing, as she shows of Hart’s familiar black polish. “I tried, one day, a dark blue, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need the black nails! Where did they go? I can’t play this character!’ We have a flashback where my nails are literally pink, and I was just in shock.”

For her part, Camacho has leaned on her own experience joining the cast to channel what Santana, whom Plageman describes as the Q to Mills’ Bond, might be going through as she integrates into the team.

“I try and relate the experience of what it is to come into an atmosphere that I’m totally new to, with people that I don’t know—maybe nervous, or I feel inexperienced, or I feel whatever,” she says. “And I try to adapt that to whatever my character’s experiencing, because if they’re coming into a new scenario, that is what they’re experiencing. You’re trying to find your footing. You’re trying to find out where you fit in, what exactly you do bring to the table, how that balances out with whatever everybody else brings.”

For all the changes by which Taken hopes to build a larger audience in Season Two, though, Mills’ “particular set of skills” remains at its center—the difference is that television allows Plageman, Standen, and company to recalibrate the series to highlight those skills.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Standen says. “You’ve got to see the bigger picture, and Liam Neeson is the bigger picture. Liam Neeson’s character in the movie is 60, and that’s where he ends up… You must get the character, smash him into a thousand pieces, and slowly put him back together.”

Season Two of Taken premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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