Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
At one point in the pilot of CBS’ new drama-thriller Hostages, a character is faced with a decision. Choosing one way means a drastic shift in everything we’ve seen up until this point, as well as providing said character with a level of courage and clarity that would set them apart from similar characters in other series. Choosing the other way means things go on pretty much the way they’ve been going on for the previous half hour. To be any more specific would risk spoilers, but it suffices to say the character takes the easy way out. It’s not a hard decision to justify, but it speaks to the heart of one of the show’s big problems: a fundamental lack of courage. This plot demands a willingness to see things through—and the script shows no indications that anyone involved realized it.
The show wastes no time in establishing its familiarity. After one of the more pointless in medias res openings in recent memory (the title is Hostages—the audience will wait a few minutes for the ski-masks), the pilot sets to work introducing its core ensemble. There’s Toni Collette as a brilliant surgeon, giving a press conference about a scheduled operation on the president of the United States. There’s Tate Donovan as her bland businessman husband. Quinn Shephard and Mateus Ward play Collette and Donovan’s seemingly clean-cut kids. Finally, there’s Dylan McDermott, a badass FBI agent with a comatose wife who, for reasons that remain mysterious, has decided to take Collette’s family hostage in order to force Collette into killing the president while he’s under the knife.
As with a lot of pilots, there’s too much effort expended in establishing a lot of overly complicated backstories. A number of characters have dark secrets—clichéd, dull dark secrets that aren’t pulpy enough to be exciting and yet too numerous and melodramatic to be realistic. Which is another problem: Television thrillers have to make a choice about which direction they want to go in. They can be carefully crafted, patient, and built on plausible events—or they can be batshit crazy, and get their energy from momentum, decisive protagonists, and shock. Hostages’ goofy premise seems tailor-made for 24-style absurdity, and with each successive, flat reveal, it’s clear the show’s creative team isn’t going for docudrama. While the pacing is solid and the direction is competent, nothing rises above the average. The pilot is too tasteful to be intense, and too silly to be affecting. It’s middlebrow to the bone.
The performances fail to make much of an impression, either. McDermott is a handsome man with a limited skill set; he can do smug, smugly tragic, and smugly righteous, and he can sort of manage smug menace, but he can’t achieve the level of mastermind genius with a vulnerable soul the pilot requires of him. In his defense, few could. Collette fairs better, but she’s restricted by the limits of her role; as the closest the show has to a protagonist, she’s required to be tough and resourceful, but not so resourceful that she can free her family and risk upsetting the scenario before said scenario has been stripped clean of even the tiniest slivers of dramatic meat. Imagine Carrie Mathison, caged. The rest of the cast is passable, but no one stands out. Nothing stands out. It’s a level playing field of minimum competence.
Still: It’s possible that the show will improve. On the plus side, Collette is a strong actress—provided the writers ever give her something to work with beyond “gasp!”—and the first episode moves along well. The premise hinges on an immediate, and pressing crisis, and even if that crisis isn’t all that intense so far, it does require follow-through. The stall can’t last forever. In the weeks ahead, maybe the show will get smarter, and by getting smarter it will get dumber, and sometime in November, Collette will steal a flame-thrower and McDermott will turn out to be an alien, and the family will start a band.
Even giving everyone involved the unearned benefit of the doubt, though, there’s still the biggest problem of all: Hostages is based on a hostage situation. It has a lot of plot, but there’s no story engine here; there’s nothing to suggest how this could work as an ongoing series once Collette and her family escape/are released/get horribly murdered. McDermott claims that the experience will tie them all together, hostage-takers and hostages. But unlike (again) 24, which had a vaguely similar plot at the start of its first season, once Collette is out of this, her job doesn’t give her any reason to stay involved. The writers will have to work to keep her and McDermott tied together, and that’s rarely a good sign. Are they going to have adventures? Is half this season going to revolve around therapy sessions and court trials? Maybe. And maybe it’ll be amazing. But for now, the only reason to recommend this is that it could’ve been worse.
Created by: Alon Aranya, Omir Givon, Roten Shamir; developed for American television by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring: Toni Collette, Dylan McDermott, Tate Donovan, Quinn Shephard, Mateus Ward
Debuting: Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Hour-long drama
Pilot episode watched for review
Reviews of Hostages by Sonia Saraiya will appear weekly