January 7, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Hostages”


The failures of HOSTAGES were many, and they separate into two dimensions.  One–the more important to CBS–was commercial; the show proved to be dead in the water from the night it premiered against the launch of The Blacklist.  Despite a summer of heavy promotion, NBC and James Spader wiped the floor with Hostages, and never stopped wiping.  (Technically, tonight’s finale was merely of the “season,” because the network wants to preserve its contractual right to order more episodes, but if it actually did, that would be a sign of both the utter collapse of its on-air dramas and of its development for 2014-15.  CBS’s disdain for the series by the end can be shown by its refusal even to make the token Guild payments required to air the 2-hour conclusion as a seamless special; instead, the hours aired with separate credits and a “previously on” for the hour that had just aired stuck halfway through.)

The more frustrating failures were creative, because the Hostages pilot was one of the most promising of the season.  It seems to have been a fundamental mistake to extend the material to 15 hours in the first place.  The basic situation, with surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and her family held captive by villains led by renegade FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) in order to force Ellen to kill the President of the United States on her operating table during a scheduled surgery, might have made for a snappy 2-hour movie, or even sustained a 6-hour miniseries, but extending it for more than double that length forced the show into tighter and tighter circles, pacing like an anxious little dog, increasingly desperate in its repetition (how many times could the family almost but not quite get away from their captors, or be interrupted by unexpected visitors?) and getting nowhere.  Having said that, though, if the adventures of a paper company in Scranton could last for 9 years on the air, this story in the right hands could surely have managed one shortened season.  The central problem with Hostages is that the characters never became more interesting than they were in the pilot, and newcomers were even more cardboard.

Plausibility was an issue as well, but here again, an escapist thriller can get away with a whole lot of unlikely plot twists (just ask Shonda Rhimes), as long as the material is delivered with enough speed and commitment.  Scandal takes off on its wild weekly rides and never looks back, while Hostages was always retracing the same steps.  The show also had a problem with its perceived need to make Carlisle a good guy at heart, with a ridiculously sentimental motive for his crime (he needed the President’s bone marrow to save his cancer-ridden wife, who was the secret child of a rape committed by the President years before–she was cancer-ridden, by the way, until she rose from her deathbed to walk around in seemingly robust health throughout the last few episodes); once we knew Carlisle’s heart was pure, any threat he represented disappeared, and the series never made him interesting in any other way.  In fact, supporting captors Sandrine (Sandrine Holt) and Kramer (Rhys Coiro) ended up being more shaded than Carlisle was.  Ellen, too, even in the estimable hands of Toni Collette, just didn’t have that much to her.

The finale, while it wrapped up just about all loose ends (the producers must have known there’d be no Season 2 by the time it was written), was as bland as what preceded it.  Both Hour 1 written by Executive Producer Rick Eid and directed by Anton Cropper, and Hour 2 written and directed by series creator Jeffrey Nachmanoff, featured far too many heartwarming changes of heart.  Ellen told the First Lady (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) about the President’s ugly past; instantly the President’s wife was on her side and helping her to secure the needed bone marrow; uber-villainness Vanessa (Joanne Kelly), the First Lady’s ambitious sister, abandoned her scheming to help her sister make the President face his crimes; Ellen saved the President’s life during surgery, then reconstituted her shaky marriage for the good of the family; Carlisle ended the show by surrendering to the police for his part in the whole operation.  Nachmanoff and Eld apparently never heard that the concept of a “thriller” actually requires some thrills; they were aiming for the audience to go “awww,” instead.  Even Sandrine and Kramer ended up riding off into the sunset together, on their way for him to meet the son she’d been protecting all along.  The only victims, in the end, were the ex-soldiers:  traitorous war hero Blair (Brian White), and conspirator Archer (Billy Brown), who seemingly died mostly because he was just too stupid to go on living.

It’s always a shame when an intriguing premise is wasted, especially here, where a fine cast was squandered as well.  (The single best career decision of the 2013-14 TV season?  Kate Burton deciding to leave Hostages after playing the First Lady in the original pilot to stay with Scandal, where she’s in the middle of a giant storyline as–spoiler alert!–the Vice-President who recently murdered her closeted gay husband.)  Here, it’s not just that Hostages didn’t realize its potential, but that its failure might discourage CBS from taking additional steps out of its safe procedural default setting for drama.   What could have been one of the year’s highlights instead became perhaps its saddest failure.


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."