For the record, if CBS' Hostages was "just" a show about a regular ole family whose members each individually felt trapped by their circumstances and obligations and railed against them, rebelling in the most obvious-- and the oddest-- ways, I would want to watch it. I love character studies like that. But those are often very internal struggles about which not even the best actors can make an audience with limited time, limited patience, and limited willingness to think too much care. This is the entertainment business, not a psychology study, right? So the fact that Hostages takes this family with these problems and thrusts them into an extraordinary situation when they are quite literally taken hostage by quickly unmasked men is really just the icing on top of an already very rich cake.
There are a lot of little details that you should be paying attention to on Hostages, and that is a beautiful thing. From the note that though the matriarch of the family (Toni Collette) is the real target for these intruders, they really need the whole family to be present in order for it to work, to the way they handle the family dog, to the fact that the kids are savvy enough to be concerned that they saw their gun men's faces because usually that means they'll just kill them when they get what they want, Hostages uses action to illustrate who all of these people are and what makes them tick. This allows the audience to connect with them and understand them, and to a degree, anticipate their next moves, the same way any family member would know them after living with them for so long. The audience quickly becomes a fifth family member in that regard, rather than just an additional intruder.
The Sanders family feels like any other upper middle class family that has enough room in the house and time-consuming individual schedules that they rarely see each other, let alone sit down and talk with each other anymore. And this allows everyone in the Sanders family to harbor their own secrets and complications. Husband/father Brian (Tate Donovan) is cheating; son Jake (Mateus Ward) has gotten involved in drugs; and wife/mother Ellen (Toni Collette) buries herself in her high stakes work because she isn't getting any excitement at home. If Hostages were a big Hollywood blockbuster film, the family would be forced to come together, learn about each other, and actually work together to take down Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) and his team of intruders who break into the Sanders family home and hold them hostage until Ellen carries out their demand. That would be a pretty schmaltzy, unrealistic expectation, though, and thankfully Hostages is a television series that will explore the deeper intricacies of all of its characters-- Sanders family, Carlisle, and his team alike*.
* It is worth noting that since his team consists of dynamic actors like Billy Brown and Rhys Coiro, we should expect a lot of layers to even those who are relegated to the periphery in the pilot. Personally, I'm just hoping this is one series on which Brown gets to live through the whole season!
The pilot, though, focuses mostly on the double dynamic of Ellen and Duncan. Ellen clearly wears the pants in her family. As a high powered and prominent surgeon, she is already immensely well respected and successful, but she is about to perform an operation on the President. Of the United States. That's how important she is. No wonder her husband feels a bit emasculated. Carlisle is the man with a personal agenda for having the President killed, and he decides to compel Ellen to do so in that surgery, where it can look like regular complications, and everyone can walk away unharmed and without a police escort. Immediately the pilot plays with Ellen's sense of morality versus Duncan's. She doesn't want to see her family harmed, but she also took an oath to save patients lives, not end them. Duncan and his team have their own sense or morality, but they are not nearly being as open about it.
Collette and McDermott have strong chemistry from the jump, and it's clear they are the two you are supposed to care about the most immediately. It's impossible not to focus on them immediately, even if the caring comes a little bit later and perhaps even in an unbalanced way. Both actors pop off the screen no matter what they're in, even when playing quiet figures, but here they are anything but quiet figures. McDermott specifically plays Duncan with a warmth one would not expect from someone plotting murder, and it lends itself to the intrigue of the "why" behind his character's motives. When he tells Collette's Ellen that "they are in this together," you immediately understand why she doesn't just laugh in his face and tell him she won't do his dirty work-- even if the "why" is still nagging at you.
Collette plays Ellen as a woman who has it all to anyone peering into her window but who is stuck in a routine, going through the motions, and not getting much satisfaction out of them. There is a sense of excitement that brews, however twisted that sounds, when she meets Duncan. It is an undercurrent under all of her worry, her impending guilt, her nervousness, but it finally bubbles up at the abrupt end of the pilot, exhibiting a stoicness and determination in her eye that dares you not to see what she'll do next.
Hostages is one of those shows that could have benefited from having a two-hour pilot. So much time is spent on introducing the characters-- first the versions of themselves they project and then the real people underneath-- and then setting up what Duncan wants Ellen to do and whether or not she'll do it-- that it feels like it's just getting really good-- just getting to the meat of the story-- and then the credits roll. Though the pilot ends with the promise that one part of the story is about to be drawn out longer than you expected, despite my personal hope that it was really only the tip of the iceberg and start to a greater plan, it also throws a hurdle into the plan that also promises to reveal more true colors of the characters as they adjust and respond on their feet.
If Hostages is an example of what kind of complexity and developments can occur when showrunners are designing a limited, event series, then it is certainly the case for networks to greenlight more of them. Because creator Jeffrey Nanchmanoff has a specific number of episodes to which he is writing, he is free to arc out his characters and story without worrying about his plans getting cut abruptly short and not delivering on a promise. If the pilot is any indication (and it should be), this results in tight action punctuated by complex dynamics not usually explored on TV.
Hostages premieres on CBS on September 23 2013 at 10 p.m.
Want more Hostages news and reviews? Follow LA TV Insider Examiner on Twitter!