Crisis is a hot load of bullshit, but it can be fun in a dumb sort of way. NBC’s latest drama wants to take viewers back not to the thrills of 24, but to the halcyon days of fall 2006, when every other network was copying the format of that show and Lost, flooding the airwaves with pointless “mystery” shows. They aimed to tell crackerjack serialized action stories in the style of 24, while adding in a largely useless “conspiracy” angle that would tie in, say, the Illuminati to a story about somebody getting kidnapped. By those standards, Crisis is no Kidnapped, and it’s not even The Nine, but it’s a damn sight better than Vanished. And that should probably count for something, right?
Crisis, unsurprisingly, is about a crisis. A bus full of children—the vast majority of them the kids of very important people (business leaders, ambassadors, the president, etc.)—is taken hostage via a painstakingly executed plan designed to keep them off the grid in a world covered with endless forms of electronic surveillance. They’re taken, for instance, from the one place along their bus route between Washington, D.C., and New York that doesn’t have cellphone reception, and in the latter half of the pilot the kidnappers have to deal with a surveillance drone seemingly sent directly to their location. It’s the kind of show where the bad guys’ plan is so elaborate and intricately thought out that you can grow a little sad when you realize the good guys are probably going to win, even though they’re far more boring.
Crisis is the brainchild of Rand Ravich, whose best work to date was on NBC’s skewed detective drama Life, which brought Damian Lewis to a larger audience a few years before Homeland did. Ravich’s work on that series suggested a faculty with quirky dialogue and weird philosophical notions his film work (including The Astronaut’s Wife) hadn’t, and he’s spent the last couple of years in the pilot trenches, trying to get something with some of Life’s spirit on the air. Instead, he’s ended up with this, and while there are moments when Crisis opens like a beautiful little puzzlebox thriller (a twist in the pilot is particularly inspired), it is, for the most part, a by-the-numbers tale of kids in danger and the parents who fret over them. Even the dialogue feels filled in via a Mad Libs book with the theme “Thriller Clichés.” “We’re way beyond that now!” says one character, for instance, presumably without irony.
Like every other show on television this season, Crisis has attempted to solve its problems by tossing actors at them, and at least the series has some great ones to work with. Dermot Mulroney turns up as Francis Gibson, an addlepated nerdy dude who just wants to spend time with his daughter—and ends up chaperoning the school trip that runs awry thanks to the kidnappers. Then there’s Gillian Anderson as Megan Fitch, stunningly rich CEO and mother of the class president, whom she’s willing to do anything to save. The cast’s talent extends beyond those two to some of the lesser-known stars, in particular Lance Gross as Secret Service Agent Marcus Finley, whose first day at work is the day the president’s son is taken and who gradually reveals himself to be a kind of stealth protagonist for the whole series. He’s joined by Rachael Taylor as FBI Special Agent Susie Dunn, who just happens to be Megan’s sister. Taylor’s one of those actresses TV networks keep trying to turn into a star, but whatever qualities she has are ill-served by this character, and Susie is usually bowled over by her scene partners.
Unfortunately, the show also has to be just as much about its teenage characters, and it’s clear that Ravich and his writers are far less engaged by them than by their parents and the question of what any parent would do to save their beloved child. Hell, a couple of guest characters in the second episode get more subtle shadings than most of the teens, and when it’s time for a full subplot about a connection between Francis’ daughter Beth Ann (Stevie Lynn Jones) and the president’s son, or about Megan’s daughter Amber (Halston Sage) trying to keep everything under control, the show comes perilously close to losing interest in whatever’s onscreen. Some of these kids—particularly Jones and frequent guest star Joshua Erenberg as the precocious Anton—are pretty good, but the show clearly wishes it didn’t have to spend so much time with them.
A serialized thriller like this can be saved by a solidly executed plot, and Crisis has more than enough moments that surprise or stir in its first two episodes to suggest that it will be appropriately crazy going forward. It occasionally achieves that ideal sense of the writers making everything up while they go along, while also feeling like it’s following a very closely designed plan. This is the sweet spot for this sort of show, and Crisis finds it just often enough in the first two episodes (particularly when it spends time with the kidnappers, instead of the kidnapped) to suggest it might be worth checking out for fans of the genre. But it’s also the kind of show where a mastermind can pull out a giant college-ruled notebook and show that they’ve got the whole plan mapped out. It’s gloriously stupid, but not always aware that’s what it’s doing, which leaves it in a messy middle ground—too bad to be good, too good to be bad.