When sitting down to try any new show, thoughts along the lines of “this looks terrible, please make it stop” and a deep sense of foreboding are not experiences that you want to be having. This is especially true if you’re unlucky enough to be thinking such things while still midway through the pilot episode. Of course, sometimes, bad TV experiences are simply unavoidable. Not all shows can offer an unforgettable, totally immersive experience for the viewer, after all. This is just a fact of life. However, if you’re finding that the aforementioned feelings of dread are occurring as early as the moment following your glance over the series’ plot summary, that’s usually a good indication that there is a very major problem. This is the category that CBS’ “Hostages” falls into. Despite going in with the optimistic hope that it wouldn’t be that bad, it was. It really, really was.
Having been chosen as the surgeon who will operate on the President of the United States, Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Way, Way Back”) prepares for the task ahead through a display of confidence and a string of public addresses that are almost certain to lead her to a promotion. The night before, however, Sanders’ plans are brought to a halt when a group of masked individuals take her and her family hostage. Trapped inside their own home and placed under 24-hour surveillance, Sanders is given an ultimatum: kill the president while in surgery or see her own family killed.
“Good to know you care so much about my health.”
It’s all very dramatic. It’s also the sort of plot line you might expect to see as part of a movie instead of a TV series. Unfortunately, given the way television is structured, and the fact that this isn’t meant to be a mini-series, “Hostages” finds its first challenge in trying to invent scenarios that will extend what is otherwise a pretty straight forward storyline. The first couple of episodes deal directly with the president and the consequences of Ellen’s decision to not follow her captor’s orders exactly. During this time we get a glimpse of who’s involved, some foreshadowing of what their motives might be, and hints that the actions taken here are going to be history changing. With personal family drama and humanizing scenes of the captors’ leader, FBI Agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), breaking up the main plot, these first couple of episodes are a bit bland but at least make sense in the context of things.
From there, the writers manage to find a way around their own plot and postpone the surgery for two weeks. This is when things begin to get really strange. Although references are still made to it, the main plot is almost entirely dropped in favour of focusing more on the Sanders family and their attempts to get out of their captive situation. We essentially fall into a pattern of Ellen trying to find out something/escape with her family, the captors finding out and stopping them, and Ellen being punished with death threats. It’s an overly simplistic approach that leads the characters into situations that make no sense and results in drama that doesn’t serve any real purpose. By episode six, for example, the suspense of the episode mainly rests in Ellen’s sister unexpectedly showing up to her house, demanding to sleep on her couch, and the family dancing around, trying to make her leave, as Carlisle stands in a corner and menacingly whispers “get rid of her.” That’s it.
“They have to fear us. It’s the only way to control them.”
There’s also the fact that the captors take an unusual amount of interest in the personal lives of the Sanders family. On a couple of occasions, Carlisle displays some protectiveness over Ellen’s daughter while another of the hostage taker’s beats up a gang of drug dealers who Ellen’s son owes money to. I’m sure these actions are supposed to reflect some attempt made by the writers to slip in character development but that explanation doesn’t make the scenes any less bizarre. Given that we’re supposed to believe that the cast is in a life or death situation here, scenes such as these destroy any real concern for the Sanders’ safety.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of “Hostages.” What started out as a political action-fest has turned into a series full of detours and with no real sense of direction. Each week, new problems are pulled out of a hat and I find myself caring less about the main plot the longer it’s forgotten by the writers. I’m sure there’s some ultimate goal here but, with the way things are going, I’ll be surprised if they manage to wrap it up coherently.