1. Burn Notice, “Bad Breaks”
For the TV series in search of a highly dramatic story that can be told in an enclosed space, there’s nothing quite like the hostage-situation episode. The story is fairly basic: One or more of the regular characters wander into a public place—usually a bank but occasionally somewhere else—and stumble into the middle of a robbery gone wrong. Hostages are taken, including the regulars, and over the course of the episode, other hostages are befriended (and often killed, to show the bad guys mean business). Eventually, the robbers are outsmarted by the hostages or the cops, and everyone goes home, grateful to be alive. One of the best examples of the form is this sterling hour from Burn Notice’s second season, when the show was at the height of its powers. Hero Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) just so happens to be in a bank when a group of robbers takes it over, and if there’s anyone robbers don’t want to have as a hostage, it’s Michael Westen. He launches spy trick after spy trick to turn the tide, making this the rare hostage-situation episode where the robbers are outclassed.
2. Sanford And Son, “Bank On This”
If Good Times, also from Sanford And Son producer Norman Lear, were to feature a bank robbery, viewers would wait for some kind of lesson about crime and poverty; but Sanford And Son never undercut its comedy with social relevance. So when a pair of gunmen interrupt Fred and Lamont Sanford (Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson) as they’re meeting with a loan officer, there are no worries from the audience about someone getting shot, and the hostages seem pretty blasé as well. The robbers are a cool black guy and a dunderheaded white guy who introduces himself by name. “You just can’t get good help these days,” says the smart robber with anvil-weighted irony. (The lesson, perhaps: Crime and racial integration do not mix.) Fred saves the day, and Redd Foxx saves the episode, by going into his fake heart attack routine—“Open up the big vault in the sky, Elizabeth!” The “paramedics” sent in to save him turn out to be cops instead. What? A poor black man could get medical attention that quickly? Hilarious!
3. Castle, “Cops & Robbers”
Hostage-situation episodes are a great excuse to separate two characters who may have feelings for each other that they haven’t acted on: Put one of them in harm’s way, and watch everybody stew in anxiety and regret over things unsaid. In Castle’s contribution to the genre, Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion) and his mother (Susan Sullivan) are inside a bank when it’s taken over by a crack paramilitary unit—whose members, in a Tarantino-esque touch, address themselves by the names of characters from TV medical shows. Naturally, Castle’s partner (and partner in sexual frustration) Beckett (Stana Katic) is outside, surrounded by a SWAT team, and just as naturally, the real mastermind of the operation has anticipated this and is posing as one of the hostages. The payoff comes when the two leads, not yet officially a couple, can show how they really feel about each other when the smoke has cleared and the danger passed.
4. Criminal Minds, “Hit” and “Run”
When is a bank robber not a bank robber? When a show that has defined itself as being about people who catch serial killers wants to do a bank-hostage episode. The robbers here are a trio who call themselves “The Face Cards” and answer to “The Queen.” After recurring cop character Will LaMontagne (Josh Stewart) responds to the robbery and kills one of them, the surviving robbers insist that he surrender himself and join them in the bank. While the BAU profilers gather at the scene, Will befriends one of the other hostages, and together, they formulate an escape plan. Imagine his dismay when it turns out that the “hostage” he’s been talking to all this time is actually one of the robbers. Will’s failure to guess that this might be the case suggests that he needs to watch more TV.
5. Leverage, “The Bank Shot Job”
Since banks inspire the feelings they do, not every bank hostage story has clear-cut heroes and villains. (Think of Dog Day Afternoon.) Leverage, with its contempt for big bullies and belief that the little guy may have to bend the rules to defend himself, is an ideal showcase for the twist of the sympathetic bank robber. The episode begins with two characters inside a small-town bank, about to complete a con that’s supposed to end with one walking off with a suitcase full of cash belonging to the local villainous power broker. Then a couple of guys burst in with guns, announcing they’ve come to rob the place, and take the two and their mark hostage. It turns out the robbers are victims themselves, a father and son who are trying to raise the ransom money demanded by some meth-heads who’ve taken Mom hostage. Improvising like mad, the Leverage team manages to arrange things so that Mom is safe, the bank robbers go free, the suitcase full of money goes to their original clients, and the mark gets framed for possession of meth.
6. The Nanny, “The Bank Robbery”
The Nanny’s bank-robbery episode has the hostages arguing over a take-out order (they settle for deli) and the criminal being foiled by an argument over the best route to the airport. The story begins with the show’s whiny title character (Fran Drescher) and her employer Mr. Sheffield (Charles Shaugnessy) in a lovers’ quarrel; that way he can feel guilty when the Nanny and her mother end up in a life-threatening situation. Then again, the bank robber is played by Peter Scolari, so the hostages are never too nervous. The robber desperately needs money to banish his mother to Florida, a motive that has Fran speeding past Stockholm syndrome and taking over for her captor. This is a family-friendly show, so it conveys its theme of emasculation without anyone’s balls actually being shot off.
7. Quantum Leap, “Promised Land”
Most hostage episodes revolve around a simple setup: Various members of the regular cast are held at gunpoint by some bad guys, which creates tension out of the imminent threat. “Promised Land” turns that idea on its head by taking advantage of the show’s flexible premise, and having its hero, the time-traveling, body-jumping Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), leap into one of three brothers in the middle of a bank robbery. Well, not a robbery, exactly: The Walters boys, having lost their farm to a bad mortgage, have decided to take justice into their own hands and hold the bank’s employees and customers hostage until they can talk the banker who got them into this mess. Sam’s job is to make sure the brothers don’t get themselves killed, and with the help of his holographic pal Al (Dean Stockwell), he discovers that the banker’s involvement in the loan process was more than a little shady. The episode trades some of the claustrophobic tension of the standard hostage episode for the sort of unabashed sincerity Quantum Leap excelled at, ending with a grace note as corny as it is devastating.
8. The X-Files, “Monday”
“Monday,” one of the best episodes of The X-Files’ sixth season, posits not only that Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) would wander into a hostage situation in a bank (because Mulder has to deposit his paycheck), but that they would also wander into a paranormal situation while doing so. The bank robbers—headed by Darren E. Burrows, better known as Northern Exposure’s Ed—succeed in killing off Mulder right away in the episode’s teaser, indicating that weirdness is afoot. And indeed it is. Burrows’ girlfriend (an excellent Carrie Hamilton) is living this day over and over and over again, looking for a time when Burrows doesn’t blow the bank up. Eventually, Mulder starts to get drawn into her web, and the episode goes from hostage-situation story to another TV trope: the parallel universes/Groundhog Day homage. (Although the episode’s writers, Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, said they weren’t inspired by the Bill Murray movie, but rather an old Twilight Zone episode.)
9. Starsky & Hutch, “Shootout”
One of the most durable variations on the bank-hostage scenario is the restaurant-hostage scenario, as seen in the old play and movie The Petrified Forest and Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers.” In this classic example of the form, the buddy-buddy supercops (Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul) decide to relax after a long day of busting perps by going to dinner at an Italian restaurant, having momentarily forgotten that Italian restaurants exist in crime shows so that gangsters have a convenient place to schedule their mob hits. When they’re made for cops by a couple of hitmen (played by veteran character actor Albert Paulsen and classic ’70s heavy Steven Keats) who are camped out waiting for their target to arrive, all hell breaks loose. The hitmen end up holding everyone in the place hostage as the clock ticks down, with extra suspense generated by the fact that Starsky has been shot and requires medical attention.
10. MacGyver, “Last Stand”
MacGyver’s first season had the mulleted handyman (Richard Dean Anderson) stumbling into any number of bad situations. When he encounters a group of thieves holding an armored car hostage at a small diner-cum-airport in “Last Stand,” the only real surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner in the series’ run. The episode has MacGyver up to all of his usual tricks, building surprisingly powerful handheld devices out of the materials at hand to mollify, trick, or outright stun the thieves. The gang is the standard bunch of ’80s bad guys, including the debonair leader, the creepy violent one, and the edgy, aggressive punk played by a post-Bad News Bears/pre-Watchmen Jackie Earle Haley. There’s even time for a subplot about one of the hostages struggling with Vietnam flashbacks that stop him from flying a plane. While the thieves’ willingness to keep Mac alive no matter how much of a nuisance he becomes is suspect, the episode’s constant threat keeps things moving at a good pace, turning the hero’s usual clever improvisations into a matter of life and death.
11. T.J. Hooker, “The Hostages”
In addition to banks and restaurants, hospitals are frequently the sites of TV hostage situations. Much of this is because so many series are set in hospitals, and also because it’s easy to create suspense when the hostages are patients suffering from terrible diseases that could kill them at any time if they don’t get the proper medical attention, but it still beggars belief that the hostage-takers of TV land are invading hospitals this often. A standard example of the form, right down to the little girl who needs an operation right now, is this second-season episode of the William Shatner-starring ’80s cop show T.J. Hooker. When a robbery goes wrong and one of the robbers is taken to a hospital, two of his sons (including a young Jonathan Banks, who loves saying “Hooker!”) take over the floor he’s on in an attempt to win their father’s freedom. Among the hostages are Heather Locklear’s rookie officer (whom Banks describes with relish as “a lady cop”) and Hooker’s ex-wife. Like the show itself, the episode is nothing remarkable, but it’s worth it just to watch Shatner and Banks snarl at each other.
12. House, “Last Resort”
By its fifth season, House was starting to rely more and more on forced drama and gimmick episodes, and “Last Resort” falls firmly into both categories. There isn’t anything wrong with the premise: Character actor supreme Zeljko Ivanek stars as a gunman on the run on who takes over Plainsboro in a desperate attempt to get his malady diagnosed. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is forced to work on the fly, with the gunman making it especially difficult by insisting that any medicine he receives must first get tested by House’s assistant to prevent trickery. The direction throws in plenty of distracting camera moves, but things don’t really fall apart until House gets a chance to end the situation and doesn’t. This is supposed to be due to his obsession with solving puzzles, but it pushes the character into a level of misanthropy and selfishness without taking into consideration the consequences. Other shows use hostage situations to bring out their characters’ humanity; “Last Resort” over-emphasizes its absence.
13. ER, “The Long Way Around”
ER was always fond of stunt episodes that took time away from the hospital to devote to some dramatic situation. Hostage-situation episode “The Long Way Around” was one of the first, featuring the ER stunt-episode hallmarks: a famous guest star (Ewan McGregor) and an unusual medical crisis that requires some MacGyver-style skills to resolve. While on suspension from the hospital, Julianna Margulies’ Carol Hathaway wanders into a convenience-store robbery and gets taken hostage, with McGregor playing the more sensitive of the two hostage-takers, a visitor from Scotland named Duncan (which lets the actor use his own accent, dialing the charm up to 11). Things go wrong, obviously, and there are victims to treat and cops to deal with, but that doesn’t stop Carol from striking up a weird friendship with Duncan. It ends badly, but strong performances from Margulies and McGregor anchor what could have been a cheesy hour.
14. WKRP In Cincinnati, “Hold-Up”
When sales manager Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) bonds with entrepreneur Del Murdoch (Hamilton Camp) over their mutual addictions to loud fashions, fast talking, and faked sincerity, a deal is struck for WKRP to do a series of live remotes from Del’s Stereo & Sound. After Herb, Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), and rarely seen engineer Bucky Dornster go on the air, the absence of customers is on par with Johnny’s expectations. Fortunately, Johnny is broadcasting live when matters suddenly get worse: “A man we believe might be a customer has just come back from freshening up,” he announces. “And… it looks as though he’s leaving. No, hold it, he’s pausing there. Maybe he’s going to chat with Del Murdoch, personable owner of Del’s Stereo & Sound. Yes, he is. Maybe he’s going to buy something here. And he’s… no, nope, he’s pulled out a gun. If there’s a policeman who might be listening, apparently we’re being held up down here at Del’s Stereo & Sound.” The gunman, a disgruntled, out-of-work DJ named Bob who’s trying to raise his profile with the hold-up in hopes of getting a job out of the deal, eventually gets disarmed by Johnny himself.
15. Desperate Housewives, “Bang”
In need of a shake-up after a critically derided second season, Desperate Housewives spent its third season searching for an element to command the public’s attention again. What better than a tense supermarket confrontation between a wife and her husband that turns into a hostage situation, and, eventually, a bloodbath? This episode’s success largely rests on Laurie Metcalf’s terrific performance as Carolyn Bigsby, a psychotic, cheated-on housewife who seeks vengeance against her husband but ends up shooting a few bystanders, killing one (a recurring character whose death is shocking enough to make this seem like an “event” episode without changing the show in any fundamental way). Desperate Housewives would try incongruously dramatic disaster episodes many more times during its run, but even a tornado touching down on Wisteria Lane didn’t have the same scary power as a deranged Metcalf.
16. Bob’s Burgers, “Bob Day Afternoon”
Bank-robbery episodes are a great device for isolating and spotlighting members of a show’s ensemble—a tough trick for a series as entrenched in character interaction as Bob’s Burgers. To circumvent this dilemma, “Bob Day Afternoon” stages its robbery in a way that incorporates the entirety of the Belcher family’s Oceanside neighborhood. A city block is effectively held hostage by Bill Hader’s squirrely crook, Micky, though it’s the Belcher children—with their disruptive fixations on police robots, writing a paper on Micky, and negotiating the release of a miniscule amount of money from Oceanside Savings Bank—who prove to be the biggest obstacle for the local cops. Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard has an unwavering faith in character-based comedy, and as if to honor and tweak that commitment, “human shields” serve as a motif throughout “Bob Day Afternoon,” as when Bob’s family inadvertently forms a barrier around him when he’s sent to deliver food to Micky and his captives.
17. Battlestar Galactica, “Sacrifice”
Often, the “character walks into a hostage crisis” episode of TV is a way for a show to shed an important supporting character and attempt to make it feel like a meaningful moment. “Sacrifice” gets rid of the recurring but popular Billy Keikeya (Paul Campbell), and does so in the most dramatic way possible. Dana Delaney plays a distraught civilian seeking vengeance against the villainous Cylons for killing her husband, who tries to get Galactica to release a captured Cylon, but runs up against the “no negotiating with terrorists” policy one usually encounters with the military. The whole situation is quite dramatic and, in the end, sad, but even showrunner Ronald D. Moore admitted dissatisfaction with the drably filmed episode, which doesn’t devote enough time to the hostage-taker’s story to make her sympathetic.
18. The Nine
Sure, some series use the hostage conceit for a single episode. But what about a show that could make every episode about that premise? Such was The Nine, a short-lived ABC series that premièred to positive critical buzz in 2006, but was quickly pulled due to low ratings. The show depicted the fallout from a 52-hour standoff inside a bank, with each episode gradually filling in events that transpired within that period while simultaneously depicting how those involved stayed in touch. Rather than take established characters and put them into a pressure-cooker situation for a single episode, the show started within said pressure cooker and slowly revealed how those people functioned (or attempted to function) in everyday life. Part character study, part mythological mystery, The Nine only started to fulfill the promise of its pilot by the time audiences had largely fled. While a fairly rote conspiracy emerged before ABC pulled the plug, the show’s strong ensemble (Tim Daly, Chi McBride, Kim Raver) nevertheless augmented The Nine’s unique approach to this standard television trope.