Sep 24, 2013

Hostages: “Pilot”

By Josh Oakley


[Painfully obvious spoilers for Hostages' pilot episode follow]

Absolutely no aspect of Hostages makes sense. This isn’t simple turn-your-brain-off entertainment, per se, because the show certainly thinks it’s accomplishing something. Yet it's too dull to be a proper thriller, and too batshit insane to work as a character study or drama. It attempts to ride the line between suspense and thoughtfulness (a line nearly perfected by Breaking Bad), but drowns in the muddy CBS-tainted water separating the two halves.

Hostages concerns a group of, well, hostages, as the in media res opening makes sure to promise. It’s an odd stylistic choice, as we know from the title that we’ll get there soon enough, and it only takes around fifteen minutes to arrive at the scene that opens the pilot. The Sanders family has been taken captive by a group of criminals led by rogue FBI Special Agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott). Carlisle is introduced to the audience, before the business with the Sanders, by shooting what seems to be a hostage in a bank robbery but is actual the thief. Carlisle could tell because the shoes didn’t match the suit. A foolishly reasonable cop inquires, “what if you had been wrong?” Carlisle replies “I wasn’t,” guitar-driven generic rock music kicks in, and you’re reminded that this is the channel that aired ten seasons of CSI: Miami.

The main story involves Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), a surgeon set to operate on the President of the United States. Ellen has a husband, Brian (Tate Donovan), who coaches the couples’ son, Jake (Mateus Ward). They also have a daughter, Morgan (Quinn Shephard), because the show wants to make sure to insist that this could happen to your white, rich, nuclear family. When I say I guessed every family members’ secret the second they were hinted at, I’m far from bragging. Drug dealing (Jake), pregnancy (Morgan), and cheating (Brian) are such wildly generic “mysteries” that it ends up being a relief that the show admits them all in the pilot, rather than drawing the obvious out for far too long. However, that doesn’t stop the “twists” from collapsing any ounce of suspense.

Once the family is taken hostage, Carlisle and his minions spend their time informing the Sanders that they know everything about them, and being nice to the kids for no discernible reason. Carlisle is especially guilty of this: after yelling at one of his men for letting Jake see the family dog, he helps to hide Morgan’s pregnancy from Ellen. The writers seem to have watched Jesse Pinkman and thought that all one needs for a complicated character is someone who does bad stuff but has a soft spot for kids.

Of course, Carlisle’s motivations are linked to his sensitivity. His reason for taking the Sanders hostage, and having Ellen kill the President of the United States in surgery, is connected to his wife, dying of cancer, and his young, distraught daughter. He calls his daughter, Sawyer, “Sawy-Sawy” (or “Soy-Soy”) in a move aiming for cute but landing on laughable. It turns out, of course, that Carlisle is working for the Vice President, because that’s how things such as this tend to go (imagining this scenario, but with Obama and Biden, makes the show infinitely more intriguing).

If everything here sounds ludicrous, it is, but it never feels that way. That may sound complimentary, but it’s certainly not. This would be a much more enjoyable watch if it reached for the fever pitch of lunacy similar to another fall pilot, Sleepy Hollow. That drama embraces its madness and runs with it. Hostages, on the other hand, feels consistently muted, never going for all that much even in dire situations. The poorly drawn characters help to undercut any sense of serious drama. Because we were introduced to them right before the hostage situation, none of them function as humans, just props. If the show was merely going for a thrill ride, this could potentially be forgiven, but Hostages clearly wants us to care about the characters. That’s impossible, though, when those we’re supposed to be rooting for are given so little to work with. And even if the material were slightly better, that still wouldn’t fix the tonal problem, mixing solemnity with insanity. This is kind of show where a character can say, with deadly seriousness, “The password is Ringo Starr.” I’m not sure exactly what kind of show that is, but it doesn't seem like one worth committing to.

Grade: C-

Miscellaneous:
  • Mopey teen alert, times two. CBS just loves its mopey teens (all network TV does, really, but CBS seems especially guilty in this department).
  • To add to the tonal weirdness of the show: the most generic suspense building moment (music pounding, quick editing) regards whether or not Ellen will find out that her daughter is pregnant. Um, bigger fish to fry, Hostages. Unless, of course, that’s the kind of show you’re trying to be. Which it clearly is not. I don’t get you.
  • It goes without saying I suppose that Toni Collette is one of our great actors, and is completely and utterly wasted here (for a great 2013 Collette performance, see The Way, Way Back. She's absolutely phenomenal in that film.)

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