Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hostages: “Pilot”

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It’s hard to top Zack Handlen’s preview of the Hostages pilot, so I’ve decided to flip the other way and go with a totally wrong but infinitely more hilarious reading of this new drama, which is that it is straight farce. It’s not terrible; it’s brilliant! What kind of drama underscores every minute of its action with shaky strings, signaling frantically in every minute what emotion it wants you, the viewer, to be feeling? This cannot be drama, this must be a deeply funny comedy, a show that is a parody of every other government-oriented surveillance-phobic terrorism-obsessed show that America has ever produced.

As much as I would like the above paragraph to be true—as much as I would like CBS to be trolling us with this carefully crafted melodrama—sadly, this appears to not be the case. Or if it is, no one informed Toni Collette of the joke. Indeed the saddest thing about Hostages is that Toni Collette is so quietly strong in it, a character I would be excited about in nearly any other circumstances. She plays Ellen Saunders, a doctor who is performing an as-yet vague surgery on the president, a featureless old white man who seems to have cultivated a government-or-otherwise conspiracy against him. Collette infuses Saunders with a tenacity and spirit that her lines otherwise don’t grant her, and makes the character worth watching, in a show that otherwise flops around it aimlessly, trying to build itself a plot. The writers lean way too heavily on family drama in the pilot, trying to bolster the tension of the hostage situation by tossing each member of the family their own terrible secret that no one else can discover, illuminating both that Ellen Saunders is fighting to protect a family she barely knows and that no one in her family is even remotely interesting.

Dylan McDermott, fortunately, is very much in on the joke. He’s been a brand of troll superstar for some time now, in his recurring role on American Horror Story, and that seems to be at least in part because he is perfectly aware that he has exactly one expression at his disposal, besides his rakish good looks. He’s born to play the half-good half-bad character, because he can only play what seems plausible with a smirk on his face, and that generally does narrow one’s roles. But he’s got a great handle on the mysterious Duncan Carlisle (which is a romance-novel name if I ever saw one), the FBI hostage negotiator who for unknown reasons has left his family to terrorize another. He has inscrutable blue eyes and an enviable poker face, and he milks Carlisle for all he’s worth, capitalizing on his natural ability to not convey emotion to draw out the tension of his character’s existence.

Because Hostages is taking a page from the Homeland playbook, playing with the idea of the good guys and bad guys meeting somewhere in the middle, hopefully in a sexy middle. (I don’t want to get too spoilery, but the Emmys promos for this show suggest future insanity.) It’s playing with surveillance, too, establishing right from the start that the terrorist team has put cameras in the house and tailed the family for weeks before they were taken hostage. Then they graft in medical drama, family drama, and a female heroine. It’s hitting all the on-trend notes, in a weaker way. But it’s not bad material.

Where this first episode fails is largely in the flailing about the family engages in as they’re taken hostage. Hostages would improve if it focused on Saunders herself—even if her internal conflict between protecting her family and following the Hippocratic oath veers into melodrama. There’s a scene in the pilot I cringed at, where she almost cuts her pinky finger off at the first knuckle with a pair of nail scissors. It’s a bit too over-the-top, and certainly way too openly gory for network television, but it’s also the most suspenseful moment in an otherwise very flat episode.

The show would also do well to get more into the wackier parts of its premise—government conspiracy and the politics of healthcare. Not because it’s going to do those so well, but because it’s definitely not going to do family drama well. (I have never seen something more cliche than the Saunders daughter indicating she’s pregnant with a pack of pregnancy tests, taken every four hours, as if something is going to change.) If Hostages is going to lay it on thick, it might as well do so in the arena of tinfoil hats and spy thrillers. Leave pregnancy out of it.


It would be fantastic if, you know, I had any idea what was happening in the show after this first hour, but the next few episodes promise to be illuminating, if not compelling. Some more medical exposition would be helpful, and if the idea is that the bad guys are supposed to be sympathetic, let’s get to that already. Above all, it would be great if CBS would allow this show to have a bit of an original voice, and to breathe, too. Collette’s Saunders is already an unconventional choice for a heroine, and if this is copycat trend fodder, well, things could be much worse.

Stray observations:

  • Just to catch everybody up: Daughter is pregnant, son is dealing or smoking weed, husband has a mistress.
  • The husband is the totally awful/awesome Tate Donovan, better known as Jimmy Cooper. He seems to have made a niche for him in this world as a character perpetually lying about how much debt he’s in. Good for him.
  • And now, commence speculation on how on earth this show could turn into something with more than one season!