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TV Pilot: Hostages Reviewed…

The next pilot we're looking at is Hostages, featuring Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott in a Presidential-stakes power-play…

Dr Ellen Sanders  (Toni Colette) is a surgeon at the top of her game, so much so that the President of the United States has picked her to perform a tricky medcical procedure on him which is getting a lot of media attention. It's not without some risk, but Sanders is reassuring that she'll see him through it. Sanders appears to ahve everything, two perfect children, a loyal husband and a great career, but it's all about to get horribly compromised.

She steps into the main house to find her family being held hostage by a team of black-clad intruders and their leader. He has one demand. Tomorrow's medical procedure must 'sadly' fail,  Sanders must inject the President with untraceable poison and he will then die on the operating table. If she doesn't go through with his demands, her family will die.

The intruders appear to have monitored Sanders and her family for weeks, working out every way their mission could be compromised or subverted. Every room is watched, every phone call listened to, every person she could warn might be a conspirator.  Almost every secret is known. Almost.

Even if Sanders could alert the police… would anyone believe her… after all the hostage-taker is none other than decorated and active FBI agent and siege negotiator Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott)… a respected but tragic man who has waited a long time to enact a very specific revenge…

So begins a battle of wits between Sanders and Carlisle in which both people will have to use every bit ounce of their strength, cunning and faith to stay ahead of the other and keep loved ones safe…

Hostages is a prime example of a great concept that might only be compromised by its format. It’s one thing to watch a film, say Desperate Hours, where there is a tense stand-off and power-plays with high stakes in a domestic environment… but it’s another matter entirely to keep that tension going without audiences becoming acutely aware of all the contrivances made to extend the plot. All one has to do is say the word ‘24’ to understand the swings, roundabouts, pros and cons of the situation.   Hostages is primed for fifteen episodes broadcast weekly with no repeats or gaps – thankfully only 2/3 of a regular network season in length – but that’s still a long time for the singular story to play out.

Like Homeland, this is a premise inspired by an Israeli original – though this network series doesn’t go for the grittiness of the more explicit cable shows. Admittedly, the first episode spins the various plates nicely – quickly establishing its characters and central remit. Where one might have expected  the major twist of ‘who’ the hostage-takers are to be the big surprise end-of-episode reveal, it’s deemed less important than the slow reveal we’ll get of the ‘why’.  The ‘how’ of the set-up requires a certain suspension of disbelief… in the age of micro-technology, the degree of spying and observation the hostage-takers needed to kickstart  and continue holding the family securely and without outside suspicion is certainly possible to implement, but it’s almost impossible that such an ambitious mission would ever go without some unexpected hiccups that could scupper the whole thing

There’s certainly strong casting here. Toni Colette is always impressive and here is ideally cast as a woman who can be both emotional and resilient in the face of extreme danger and pressure.  As an actor and a character, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Dylan McDermott is another solid actor, though the early introduction to his character, presumably designed to show how single-minded he can be in violent situations, seems to smack of  over-the-top fictional big-screne Hollywood arrogance that is a function of the script, rather than anything realistic. It's the one significantly wrong step in the otherwise taut pilot. Tate Donovan is the husband/father who has indiscretions of his own and we’re not sure will turn out to be a creep or anchor. The kids of the family Morgan (Quinn Shepherd) and Jake (Mateus Ward) also have their obligatory secrets but the actors give the characters some emotional depth, so they may well escape the curse of the secondary characters in search of plot that sometimes knobbles such dramas.

It’s clear that our loyalties are going to be twisted in the weeks to come. On the strength of the pilot it’s worth sticking with for the moment – but it may well be the kind of series that takes three or four episodes to wholly convince us it really does have all the bases covered and isn’t just treading water in the shark tank of primetime. In the pilot we have a great sales-pitch. But the subsequent negotiations, betwene characters and with the audience itself are where the deal needs to be signed, sealed and delivered. 

Hostages begins on America’s CBS on 23rd September.  It will air on the UK’s Channel Four early in 2014.