When we last saw Ellen and Brian Sanders, Brian was wrestling with Duncan Carlisle, attempting to poke him with a killer syringe. As Sonia pointed out last week, there was never any chance they would succeed at this, because Duncan is Dylan McDermott’s character, and is clearly in this for the duration, but you take cliffhangers where you can find them on Hostages. Picking up the drama where it left off, tonight’s episode resolves the situation by having Ellen run in, just as Brian is about to kill Duncan, and deliver a line that sums up Hostages’ narrative technique so perfectly that the writers ought to have it tattooed on their foreheads: “We can’t! I’ll explain later.” As it happens, Brian has managed to poke Duncan with the killer syringe, but he only poked him a little bit, so Ellen sticks Duncan in an ice-filled bathtub and prays that none of the fellow commandos stationed in the house get suspicious. The next morning, Duncan, who is just fine, thanks for asking, tells her that he’s glad she came to her senses in the nick of time, and, hey, no harm, no foul. He does not take a swig from his cup and add, “Honey, that’s great coffee,” but if he did, it would fit in as well as anything else.
Harold Pinter and Dennis Potter used to write plays in which mysterious, menacing figures on inexplicable errands barged into complacent, middle-class homes, taunted and tormented the families living there, exchanged bits of heavily weighted, surreal dialogue, and then took their leave, presumably to move on to the next lucky household. If the scripts for Hostages had been staged in the London West End or off-Broadway in the ‘50s or ‘60s, with Elaine Stritch, Arthur Hill, and Albert Finney as Toni Collette, Tate Donovan, and Dylan McDermott, they might be fondly remembered theatrical events, and Stanley Kauffmann or Susan Sontag might have used a lot of ink explaining how the mysterious events depicted onstage were a metaphor for man’s irrational response to the threat of the atomic bomb and guilt over the Holocaust. But Hostages is a TV series, in a season cobbled together by a bunch of people who are short on ideas and talent but who’ve taken a look at the ratings for Scandal and decided that, if you can’t make a show that’s any good, maybe you can shoot the works on unapologetic craziness and people will find the results addictive. What they’ve discovered is that making that kind of show works takes talent, too, certainly more talent than it takes to come up with, “We can’t. I’ll explain later.”
Hostages’ combination of star-spangled cray-cray and half-assed slackness is rough on its performers. Toni Collette is one of the most dependable actresses alive, and even she can only do so much with a meant-to-be-suspenseful scene where she walks down a hospital corridor, sees Dylan McDermott coming toward her, steps into a room, rolls her eyes while silently counting to 10, and then steps back into the corridor and goes on her way. “Silently counting to 10” is pretty much the subtext of every scene she has. It’s not very interesting, but save your pity for the poor bastards who don’t have her aplomb, audience rapport, and trouper’s spirit. The President has a scene with his Chief of Staff and the NSA chief in which they shovel exposition at each other—something about how the Prez has decided to cancel “Operation Total Information,” a massive spying program that has been used to foil “hundreds of terrorist attacks,” which is why his underlings are on board with having him killed.
“Mr. President,” says the Chief of Staff, “I thought you weren’t going to make any major policy decisions until after the midterm elections.” The President says, yeah, that’s what I said, but I changed my mind. The NSA chief says, hey, after all, the operation was started under the previous administration, and “You couldn’t expose it until now for national security reasons.” Yeah, says the President, see, this guy gets me. What’s mesmerizing about this scene is that, even though the actors must have learned their lines and rehearsed it together, the way it’s staged and acted, it really feels as if none of these guys had the slightest idea what the other was going to say. In fact, it feels as if each line came as such a shock to them that they forgot their own lines and had to improvise as best they could.
The NSA boss then returns to his office, and then the Chief of Staff appears in his doorway and the NSA guy tells him to come inside and shut the door. For a split-second, it looks as if they’re going to make out, which, if this was Scandal, they totally would. There’s a notorious scene from Elizabeth Rohm’s final episode of Law & Order, in which Fred Thompson’s D.A. tells her she’s fired, and Rohm, whose characters’ private life had always been a complete mystery so far as the audience was concerned, says, “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” The way Thompson recoils in shock and sputters, “No, no!” it’s impossible not to wonder if the producers, perhaps hoping to get an authentic, convincing reaction from someone who was perhaps not the most accomplished thespian in their cast, have Thompson a version of the script that did not contain her sudden, weird revelation, so that he was hearing it for the first time as the camera rolled. Hostages gets that effect in scene after scene.
Meanwhile, back at the Sanders’ house, where Dylan McDermott is relaxing after a long day of assuring his boss that he’ll for sure find out if anyone is trying to get Toni Collette to kill the President, while his associate Sandrine Holt, is hard at work, terrorizing the family by raiding their refrigerator, the teenage daughter’s thirtyish-looking boyfriend casually enters the heavily guarded house through her bedroom room to inform her that he’s taken note of her nervousness and the signs of violence on her body, not to mention her inexplicable indifference to his charms, and deduced that her dad has been abusing her. And, thank God, he’s brought a gun…
“I know the truth,” the boyfriend says. “About everything!” Like the scene where Toni Collette visits Dylan McDermott’s dying wife in the hospital, and the wife tells her that she knows everything that’s going on, and for a minute it looks as if Toni Collette actually believes she means that she knows that her husband has been camped out at her house holding her family hostage until she can kill the President during surgery, it points up the essential insanity of Hostages: Namely, it’s a farce, written by people who think they’re working on a drama. About the only way you can tell for sure that Hostages isn’t an Ed Wood production is that the President isn’t played by Bela Lugosi.
- Sonia couldn't be here tonight, but know that she feels for all of you, and will be back next week.