'Hostages': Dylan McDermott's Weird, Hammy Energy

Hostages mimics bold dramas like Homeland and early 24 but shows little original inspiration or inclination to be bold.


Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Toni Collette, Tate Donovan, Rhys Colro, Billy Brown, Sandrine Holt, Quinn Shephard, Mateus Ward
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Air date: 2013-09-23

Hostages opens with a terrific panning shot of a family on the couch, watching a ball game and looking grim. The camera swings around to reveal what appears to be Dylan McDermott in a black ski mask, and then zooms out to reveal three fellow hostage-takers pointing weapons on the family. It's a terrific cold open to the show that smash cuts to a title card.

And then the title card is immediately followed by the tired old "12 Hours Earlier" caption that takes us back to fill in all the details. It would have been a much bolder choice just to continue from that first scene, filling in backstory as present time events moved along. But it quickly becomes apparent that Hostages writer-director James Nachmanoff and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have zero interest in being bold.

That's not to say that the first episode of Hostages -- airing 23 October -- doesn't emulate a bracing drama in the vein of Homeland or early 24. It is to say that this mimicking is just that, as if the creators here have watched those shows, but have no original inspiration, and instead think that plot twists in and of themselves make a drama bracing.

A couple of these twists are flagged with the situation presented to Ellen (Toni Collette), a doctor scheduled to perform surgery on the President of the United States tomorrow. The villains want her to kill him during surgery and they, of course, have a way to make it look like an accident. If she doesn't, her family will be killed. Ellen seems to be an upstanding citizen, but her husband and two high school age children each have thoroughly predictable dark secrets. Husband Brian (Tate Donovan) seems to be cheating on her. Jake (Mateus Ward) is a marijuana enthusiast who is mixed up with a bad, bad drug dealer. Apparently the only problem the show could think up for the teenage daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard), is pregnancy (this may surprise her parents, but not anyone who's seen a plot like this one).

As for our hostage takers, the second time we see Duncan (McDermott), he's at his day job as an FBI hostage negotiator, dealing with two armed men inside a bank. Duncan takes over from the local police, has his sniper take out one of the robbers, then grabs the phone to negotiate with the other. At this point he talks him into letting all the hostages go except for one, then shoots the remaining hostage when the last two men exit the building. You see, the bad guy switched places with the hostage and Duncan figured it out. "What if you were wrong?" a cop asks him. "I wasn't," is his steely reply. He's the kind of badass agent who doesn't play by the rules.

Duncan's involvement in the hostage taking might have something to do with the fact that his wife is in a coma. He shares a tender moment with her in the hospital (the same one where Ellen works, naturally). Her role in his thinking is a question that will, one assumes, eventually be answered. He also has an eight or nine-year-old daughter he treats like a four-year-old. "When's mommy coming home? I want mommy!" whines the girl. "Mommy needs to rest, honey, so she can get better," is his lame non-answer. Lucky for him, the girl is completely distracted from this topic by the arrival of her grandpa.

Most of Duncan's backstory is revealed in the episode's first 20 minutes. The final 40 show the villains' more or less collective perspective, as they prepare for and execute the operation. Their limited view suggests some possible complications, as when Morgan leaves to meet with her boyfriend just before the bad guys move in, and later Ellen trips the silent alarm. But, as Duncan says, "We have thought of everything," And by the way, we have another perspective, shaped by the fact that we've already seen the whole family on the couch at the top of the show. This foregone conclusion defuses narrative tension, but it doesn't stop Hostages from treating these pre-couch scenes as if they have high stakes.

Of course, Ellen does face some stakes: will she kill the President or will she call the hostage takers bluff? But the show means to be a series, which means her decisions must take time. How long this can be effective is unclear. Hell, Prison Break managed to wring four seasons of ridiculous, pulpy fun out of a narrative dead end. But Hostages starts from a premise even more constrained and takes itself far more seriously.

For all its problems, Hostages is not without a certain appeal, including the fun of watching McDermott indulging in his weird, hammy energy. The bank hold-up scene stakes full advantage of that energy and his "Kill the President or else!" speech does as well. Still, that speech also suggests some of the thematic and plot threads that, if pulled, could make for a wacky satire subverting the typical high stakes thriller. At one point Duncan hides Morgan's home pregnancy test from her mother, and one of his colleagues gets involved in Jake's drug dealer situation. Watching the villains have to scramble to keep the family members' crappy secrets in order to keep forcing Ellen to do what they want could make for a treasure trove of ridiculous antics. Based on the completely straight-faced first episode, though, this trove may not be visible beneath the more ponderous surface.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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