When it comes to TV pilots, there are the really good pilots (few and far between), the really bad pilots (a little more likely than the good ones), and a whole lot of problematic, mediocre pilots (most of them). It's really easy to look at something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and be excited, or to sample Dads pilot and want to burn down Fox HQ. But working through shows like Hostages that have a few solid elements but a lot of disappointing nonsense? Ugh, much more difficult.
Much of the early criticism of Hostages has focused on how the narrative will stretch across 15 episodes per season, or multiple seasons. However, that doesn't necessarily worry me. There are tons of shows that, when they began, faced big questions about how they could possibly sustain their premise—Lost and 24 immediately come to mind. The thing is, good shows overcome those questions with solid storytelling that makes you forget about the potential lifespan of the plot. Hostages could become one of those shows by the end of its first season, but right now the future isn't the problem, it's the present. This pilot episode didn't waste any time establishing the hostage situation and the clear stakes involving Dr. Ellen Sanders, her family, and the president. However, none of the characters seemed especially interesting here, which means it was really easy to start asking questions about all those things Hostages doesn't want us to ask questions about. How is this a show? What does Episode 7 look like? Does Dylan McDermott experience emotion like a human?
Even early on, it seems like Hostages is at war with itself. The pilot wasted absolutely no time jumping into the proverbial hostage situation and pushing Ellen toward making hard choices, which suggests that writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff knows that this is a show needs to keep the story moving along, with enough twists and turns to keep the audience entertained, but not necessarily thinking about the logistics of any one decision or maneuver. And I think that intuition is correct. However long Hostages lasts, it's never going to be a Serious Drama; to succeed, it must embrace the inherent silliness of the conceit, and probably ramp it all up to 11.
However, although there were moments in the pilot that seemed like the show understood this, so many times the action slowed down for more contemplative moments that simply did not work. It's really nice to have Toni Collette back on television with a consistent gig, but she was mostly left to react to terrifying situations and spout out cliches about saving her family. The pilot's final few moments gave Collette's Dr. Sanders the kind of 'win' that network executives love and kept the narrative rolling, but it's not the triumph that the pilot wants us to think it is. Messing with the medication to thin the president's blood (or at least make it look like that's what happened) wasn't especially surprising or innovative... which only made me start wondering about the longevity of the premise again.
The other members of the Sanders family were, in some ways, given more to do than the show's star. Shows like this almost have to use the kids to drum up the drama, but also to introduce the kind of backdoor secrets that come out at the worst possible time, and those scenes were just fine. There's nothing yet interesting about the daughter's secret relationship or the son's secret stash and drug-dealing, but there were little moments here and there—mostly when the kids were interacting with the kidnappers—that worked well enough. Tate Donovan, seemingly destined to play a dirtbag dad and husband, similarly did the best he could with the material he was given, but adultery is about as rote as it gets. You can sort of forgive these scenes because this was a pilot and something had to be there to make us care about Dr. Sanders' plight, but Hostages jumped so quickly into these arcs after bringing all the principal characters together that any side conversation in a bedroom involving a family member and a kidnapper felt the show was saying, "Hold on, just let us get through this." Very little urgency, and if that's happening in the pilot, it's not a good sign.
And of course, Dylan McDermott's Agent Duncan Carlisle was the embodiment of the pilot's wishy-washy problem. McDermott is kind of perfect for this role because in certain scenes he's asked to be the badass agent who straight-up shoots a dude during a hostage negotiation because HE KNOWS which one is the real kidnapper, and in the next scene he's crying over his wife's nearly lifeless body in the hospital. In all my years of watching TV, I haven't quite figured out whether McDermott is a good actor or a fully horrible one, but he COMMITS. Thus, when the pilot tried to make Carlisle seem complex and complicated and all that other half-assed anti-hero stuff, Hostages got pretty boring. The range just wasn't there, nor was the writing. But in the moments where McDermott was able to strut around, bellow out instructions, or participate in probably never-ending governmental conspiracies to remove the president from office, the show saw an uptick in quality.
Basically, the quicker Hostages embraces its stupid side, and lets McDermott shoot at people, it'll be better. The problem is, unfortunately, that it's hard to do 42 minutes of show each week without taking detours into the lives of the hostages and the kidnappers. Those stories could improve sooner rather than later, especially with solid performers like Donovan, Sandrine Holt, and Billy Brown involved, but what are the chances that a story about a high school kid selling weed ends up being interesting? Or that adultery makes the hostage situation that much more intense? If Hostages can't make one episode that engaging, then it won't be able to do it across 15, or more. The lifespan of a premise only matters when a show gives us time to think about it, and Hostages gave us a whole lotta time.
– How long can Dr. Sanders avoid operating on the president? Wouldn't it be nuts if she just knocked him off and called Carlisle saying, "Okay, 'sup?" Turns out Hostages is actually a show about a doctor who kills once and then can't stop.
– Seriously, the way McDermott played that initial stand-off was amazing. Not only did Carlisle nonchalantly shoot a guy, he then followed it up by strutting away like it was nothing. HE'S SO COOL.
– It probably didn't help matters that Toni Collette and Tate Donovan don't have much chemistry. Maybe that's the point, but meh.
– We're still haven't decided whether we'll be covering this show week-to-week, but if you want a space to discuss McDermott's leather jacket, speak up.
What'd you think of the series premiere?
AIRED ON 1/6/2014
Season 1 : Episode 15