October 1, 2013

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Hostages”


HOSTAGES:  Monday 10PM on CBS

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on HOSTAGES:  Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) is a surgeon scheduled to operate on the President of the United States (James Naughton).  The night before the surgery, her home is invaded by a group that threatens to murder her family–husband Brian (Tate Donovan), daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) and son Jake (Mateus Ward)–if she doesn’t kill the President while he’s on her operating table.  Although Ellen doesn’t know this, the head terrorist is actually reckless but seemingly heroic FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott); the other members of his team are Maria (Sandrine Holt), Kramer (Rhys Coiro) and Archer (Billy Brown).  The kidnappers have been watching the Sanders family carefully, and they know secrets that Ellen doesn’t–for example, that her husband has been having an affair, and her son owes money to a school pot dealer whose weed he and a friend have been selling.  Duncan’s own motives for the attack, as well as the underlying reasons for the plot against the President, are still mysterious.  (Although Carlisle’s very ill wife will almost certainly play into the storyline.)  At the conclusion of the pilot, Ellen bought some time by slipping the President some blood thinner, making surgery too dangerous and postponing the operation for 2 weeks.  This being the case, Carlisle announced that he and the gang would be staying with the family all through that time.

Episode 2:  The first post-pilot episode moved the show’s ball surprisingly little down the field.  The opening scenes of the script, written by series creator Jeffrey Nachmanoff and showrunner Rick Eid, wasted some time with a very familiar psychodrama stunt, as Carlisle tried to convince Ellen that he would kill a member of her family in retaliation for her trick with the blood thinner (he handed her the gun and said she had to pull the trigger herself; naturally she turned it on Carlisle; naturally the gun was unloaded).  Then Maria drove Brian to see his mistress, so the woman wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss with him, a scene that should have been much more ingeniously constructed than it was.  Cleverness was in short supply throughout the hour, as its second half concerned itself with the Secret Service investigation into how that blood thinner reached the President, and Carlisle proved he meant business by staging a “suicide” of the nurse on the case, who also happened to be Ellen’s close friend, so that Ellen would be off the hook.

There was nothing wrong with this plotting, exactly, but you could see all of it coming a mile away; it was blunt rather than surprising.  The promise of the pilot had been the way it had everything going on at once during the hour; the personal problems of the family, the conspiracy to kill the President and the mysteries of the kidnappers bounced against each other with a chaos that jangled the nerves.  This episode was much more neatly constructed, and therefore less interesting.  Hostages is starting to feel like 24, except without the big action sequences or Kiefer Sutherland.  (And also like 24, it’s going the way of Big Conspiracy plotting, as we saw a flashback of the White House Chief of Staff recruiting Carlisle 6 months earlier and promising that killing the President would remake the whole world.)

This isn’t to suggest that the show has lost its way, at least not yet.  There was a good scene where Carlisle explained to Ellen how to pass a polygraph test, and the episode developed some stress points between the kidnappers that will come in handy later on.  It was certainly useful to have someone killed by the villains, so that they don’t seem entirely toothless, since we know they won’t be eliminating any of the Sanders family for a good long while at least.  Jason Ensler’s direction kept the action moving, and Toni Collette brought real fury and desperation to the scenes late in the episode when she realized the consequences that were engulfing her friend.

Nevertheless, it was an episode that needed to be great, and it wasn’t.  To paraphrase Airplane, Hostages picked the wrong week to air a merely OK episode, especially since the series got off to a tepid start in last week’s ratings, a mere 1.8 in 18-49s that was half of the number NBC had with The Blacklist (and not much better even in the usually CBS-skewing total viewer figures).  More embarrassing still, it was well below the ratings CBS had gotten all summer with Under the Dome in the Monday 10PM slot.  Once a serialized show loses viewers, it’s awfully hard to get them back, and Hostages needed to be more gripping in its second week.  There may be much better to come:  the “highlights” clip reel the Hostages producers shot with the pilot included some plot twists with great potential–but they won’t mean much if the show has struck out by the time they arrive.


PILOT + 1:  Now Isn’t the Time To Slack Off

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."