Put simply, Hostages on CBS seems like 24 and Homeland rolled into a neat, network-friendly package. It checks off the elements of every other TV thriller you’ve ever watched: A protagonist faces a seemingly unsolvable problem. A morally gray villain has mysterious motivations. It all takes place in D.C., involves the POTUS and has a lot of characters fiddling with cell phones. Throw in some snappy action sequences, lingering shots of long hallways and ominous music, and you’ve got yourself a perfunctory drama cocktail. Caution: Spoilers ahead!
Unfortunately for Hostages, the suspense only leads to a sense of deja vu. If you found yourself wondering, “Haven’t I seen this before?” during the pilot, you’re not alone.
But let’s back up. Here’s what’s going on: Toni Collette stars as Dr. Ellen Sanders, the surgeon assigned to operate on the U.S. president. The night before the operation, her family is threatened at gunpoint and taken hostage by a team of kidnappers led by a steely-eyed man named Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott, or as I like to call him, “McDermott Mulroney”). Duncan orders Ellen to assassinate the president during the operation, or else her family dies.
It’s a riveting premise, and the pilot is wise to begin with the disturbing image of the four masked hostage takers surrounding the Sanders on their living room couch. But this is where the deja vu begins: The scene cuts to “12 hours earlier,” and then uses the rest of the episode to show viewers how this seemingly “ordinary” family ended up trapped in their own home. Instead of giving us answers, the pilot raises more questions and uses some relatively trite plot twists to get there.
Let’s tally these plot twists up, shall we? First, Duncan is revealed to be an FBI agent (one!) with a young daughter (two!) and a comatose wife (three!). So is he a good guy or a bad guy? (Answer: He’s a good-looking guy. Zing!) Next, Ellen’s husband, played by Tate Donovan, is hiding an affair (four!). Their teenage daughter finds out she’s pregnant (five!) and asks Duncan not to tell Ellen (six!). Their teenage son (double the teenagers, double the angst) is hiding a … weed deal and something to do with $1200? For those of you playing along at home, that’s seven total plot twists. Is that enough for you? I didn’t even include the obnoxious one about the family dog. (You know what I’m talking about. Eight!)
So what does it all mean for the Sanders family and Duncan? The pilot refuses to give anything away and explains away questions with lines like “We have thought of everything” or “It’s been taken care of.” How will the kids get away with not going to school? “It’s been taken care of.” Will the authorities be able to trace the poison back to Ellen? “It’s been taken care of.” Can the family try escaping via silent alarms? Nope, all taken care of.
Still, that’s the show’s hook: We, as viewers, get to watch the unfolding events through Ellen’s eyes. We’re trapped with her. Scenes set in the house feel stifling, because we’re not seeing the dilemma play out from inside the CTU or the CIA — we’re just as in the dark as the hostages.
And because of that, despite the heaps of twists and holes, I find myself invested enough to stick around for a few more episodes. Collette and McDermott are, as always, intriguing to watch, and the tension is almost palpable when the two share scenes, even though the dialogue can get painfully generic (Duncan to Ellen: “You’re going to kill the president of the United States, Ellen.” Ellen to Duncan: “This can’t be happening. It’s not possible.”).
So I’ll continue to watch, at least to see if Hostages can improve and, of course, where it’s going with these characters’ mysteries. At a limited run of 15 episodes, it has the potential to quicken the pace, and the final scenes of the pilot effectively piqued my curiosity. The show just needs to up the tension and try harder to set itself apart from every other thriller we’ve seen in the past decade, which I realize is easier said than done.
If you checked out Hostages tonight, what did you think? Am I way off the mark in my reaction? Sound off in the comments below.