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