Episode 1: Pilot
By: Carlos Uribe
Hostages is a television show about a doctor's family who is taken hostage when she has to operate on the President. I will be reviewing this show weekly.
The idea behind Hostages is a complicated one. I'm not talking about a viewer understanding the premise of the show. It might be a little tough to actually explain to someone in a couple sentences what the show is about but it's not beyond comprehension. No, I'm talking about how long the premise can actually drive the narrative before it becomes ridiculous, idiotic, and/or stale. There's only so long that a family can be held hostage before the writers run out of ideas to actually make it work and believable. This presents Hostages with a weird conundrum going forward: how will the series work in the long-term? The behind-the-scenes interviews and article pieces hint that this first season will be completely resolved by the end. It will largely be self-contained and act as a mini-series. The second season will hit the reset button. It'll have a completely new narrative with the same characters. This hopefully suggests that the title “Hostages” becomes more metaphoric than literal since I don't think viewers are really going to appreciate the same family being taken hostage more than once. So we can take it that the mythical second season will actually have a different premise that somehow builds on the original. Okay, so the long-term survivability of the premise being able to drive the narrative is kind-of solved. You still get into the point that this first season is going to have fifteen episodes. A whole season that takes place over the course of two weeks isn't impossible to do but I'm currently doubtful if Hostages, in particular, can pull it off. Let's assume they do have a plan: this still means they have to come up with what every episode is going to be about. Fifteen episodes is a pretty big order and I wouldn't be surprised if it stretches the premise to it's limits. This worry about how the series will work as it goes along is a strong one but it shouldn't be enough to not check the pilot out. After all, first the series has to survive before we have to worry about the how. First we have to deal with the immediate problems.
The pilot has a lot of problems going forward. The reason that I doubt that Hostages can actually carry out the first season over two weeks is a matter of tension. Tension is integral to any series but it's the lifeblood to a series like Hostages. You need to feel like you have been taken hostage with the family. There needs to be a level of uncertainty that make you hold your breath. For all the flak that Homeland has gotten, it's tense episodes are unlike anything on television. Hostages should be a show where any wrong move could end up disastrously wrong for the characters. Where you don't know if their going to survive or how they'll be able to live two weeks under constant guard. These are people with guns that are taking over their lives. They have lost a lot of their freedom. The very existence of a hostage should be sufficient to instantly create a lot of tension. It's a bit shocking that Hostages completely fails at setting up any tension. I'm not entirely sure why that is but I think it has to do with the execution. The pilot opens up to the family sitting down in front of the coach. They look a bit worried but we soon realize that men with guns are surrounding them. It's an incredibly tense idea. In execution? It's more comical than anything. The pilot never actually makes you feel like the family is in danger. That's partly because of them having to survive the two weeks in order for the first season to work. It's also partly in scenes where one of the men in guns tries to comfort the son by showing him that the dog is still alive. Like the head hostage taker notes, the family is supposed to fear the hostage takers. They don't have to be liked by the family. In a weird sense, it's a bit odd when the pilot basically admits it made a stupid move. In showing that the dog is still alive, the pilot betrays any sense that the family is in any actual danger. Once that element of danger is removed, everything becomes melodramatic. There is no tension. So the question should be how can Hostages keep the tension going for fifteen episodes but rather it's how can Hostages work when it can't even get the tension going in the first place? The fact that I have to ask the wrong question is likely why Hostages is ultimately doomed: it's lifeblood of tension isn't there.
The main protagonist of Hostages is Dr. Ellie Sanders. She's a well-respected doctor who was chosen to operate on the President of the United States. This is a pretty big honor even if the surgery is rather routine. Of course, Hostages messes up there. If the President needed the surgery because he only has a limited time to live then the tension builds. Anyways, Dr. Sanders is a tough lady who tries to act that operating on the President is no big deal. The humble doctor finds her life thrown upside down when her family gets taken hostage. Dr. Sanders is told she has to kill the President or her family will be killed. She's the kind of character who subversively finds way to resist her captors which at least gives her enough agency to keep the narrative flowing. The choice presented to her is a pretty big one with major consequences either ways. The stakes are high for her. At the same time, the tension isn't there because the stakes are too high. Is she actually going to kill the President? She's the heroine and this is network television. I mean, come on, she's the only family member that doesn't have a secret exposed in the pilot. I doubt that she'll actually be forced to end the President's life. Is she going to allow her family to be killed? That sound you hear is me laughing at the very idea. I'll be shocked if a single family member ends up dead. The hostage takers didn't even kill their dog. So the stakes might be high but it's a bit difficult to buy into them. Toni Collette does a great job but the role is so trite that she makes for a very standard protagonist. If perhaps the stakes had been higher and she herself had a secret then maybe she would work better in creating tension.
The rest of the characters are just as troublesome. The antagonist is Duncan Carlisle. He's an FBI agent whose motivation is that he wants to help his family. It's implied his wife's health is being held hostage (GET IT? LOOK AT THE LEVELS OF HOSTAGE-TAKING) by someone in the White House. He's being forced into taking the family hostage. I like the levels of grey and it helps make Duncan be more compelling than Sanders. At the same time, it also basically means he's going to be an anti-hero. I don't expect this anti-hero to be an actual threat to our family which he kind of needed to be. His team is made up of three members that are largely forgettable. There's one who wants to be liked by the son, a girl who is all tough, and a black one. I don't remember their names. As for the Sanders family? The dad is a typical husband who cheats on his wife. I do think it's a bit odd that when the hostage takers threatened to kill his whole family, he still told his wife to resist their instructions to kill the President. They threaten to expose his affair? All of a sudden, he wants her to do what they ask. The guy's priorities are out of wack. What? He doesn't care if his kids die as long as his wife thinks he was an honorable man? His daughter, Morgan, is pregnant from her secret boyfriend. Typical teen drama. The son, Jake, owes money to a drug dealer. Oh great, more typical teen family. There is nothing that makes the Sanders family interesting or stand out. At this point, the most compelling character is Duncan but his levels of grey undermines the show because it means he's no real threat. Which means there is no tension.
Alas, there are a lot of problems with Hostages. The question of how long the premise can keep going is one we shouldn't be asking because it's doubtful the series will last long enough for us to find out. The problem with Hostages is there is no tension in it's execution or writing. The main protagonist is offered an interesting choice but she's a typical network heroine that will find a way to save her family without killing the President. The anti-hero Duncan might be a compelling character but his existence undermines the tension that's already there. It might have been better to reveal details about his life after the pilot so we gain a greater understanding of his motives after we already feel that he's a threat. The hostage-takers are all largely forgettable while the Sanders family is to typical to really be interesting. Hostages isn't a completely terrible show but it has many problems that it needs to solve before we can even talk about it's future.
I don't know but I would think that when a doctor is chosen to operate on the President, the doctor gets a secret security attachment to ensure that something like this doesn't happen. I could be wrong.