While there has been a lot of justifiable grumbling lately about the lousy crop of new network television shows this fall — it's been a lean year, full of clunkers — as the season wears on, a few mild successes are beginning to stand out. ABC's Trophy Wife is a charming, clever family comedy featuring remarkably likable performances from its child actors (two in particular) and gently zany performances by Marica Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins. On NBC, The Blacklist has been a ratings hit, and for good reason. The show nimbly gives us weekly mysteries while crafting a genuinely intriguing larger mythology, done with a fine eye for casting and sharp, amusing writing. And then there is CBS's Hostages, a show that threatens to eventually lose narrative steam and lose its hold on viewers, but for the moment? The show's grip is pretty tight. On me, at least. The show hasn't been very popular, which is a shame. It deserves a chance.
The network originally billed the show as a "limited series," a format that the Big Four networks are starting to fiddle around with, jealous of the success that cable has had in that area. But it's hard to tell in this context, or any really, what "limited" means exactly. Regardless, so far we've got a swiftly plotted thriller about Dr. Ellen Sanders, a top D.C.-area surgeon played by Toni Collette, whose family is held hostage by a gang of mysterious mercenaries. The gang is led by Duncan Carlisle (what a silly TV name), a dark-eyed FBI agent (surprise!) with a dying wife and a young daughter. Duncan wants Ellen to do one simple thing: Discreetly kill the president of the United States during surgery, or else. It's apparent that Duncan's motivations are mostly based on saving his wife, but who are his employers? What's their game? That will be the ongoing mystery of the series, should it continue.
The captive family has their own secrets, of course, which have been revealed in alternately familiar and surprising ways. And you know what? It's all been pretty exciting. Nothing about Hostages feels terribly unique, but the show is a lot denser and more cannily written than it first appears to be. The moral shading has trended toward the deep black; a brutal scene in last night's episode involving a freshly dug grave was truly startling. Unlike a lot of network shows, Hostages is willing to make the danger feel palpable, the threat is realer than expected, though no one involved is exactly a monster or a hero. While still very much a network thriller with all its easy conveniences and over-reliance on stereotypical family dynamics, something about Hostages is different, like the writers might have some genuinely shocking twists and reveals up their sleeve. In such a dull season, isn't that worth investigating?
As a way to hook viewers, or at least keep those still watching hooked, last night's "scenes from the next" reel was followed by an "and coming later this season" bit that showed some pretty interesting things. The clip reel suggested that while this show may be on its way to getting soapier, in doing so it's also heading into riskier territory. Maybe lots of viewers have expected these things, or this one thing in particular (no spoilers!), to happen since the pilot, but I've been so unsure what to make of the show since it began — is it a simpler, network version of Homeland? CBS's attempt to make its own Scandal? — that each cleverer-than-expected turn in the narrative hasn't seemed inevitable or programmatic. Hostages functions enough as its own show, feels like an original and organic enough series (though, like Homeland, it's based on an Israeli show), that it has me yelling at characters to run, gripping the edge of my couch in a way that Homeland hasn't made me do in a season.
Unfortunately, the life of Hostages may be even more limited than intended. The ratings haven't just been underwhelming, they've been downright bad. The show is already on cancellation lists, meaning we might be facing a bunch of forever unanswered questions. But maybe it's not too late? If you tune in. of course. If you're looking for something diverting and suspenseful, but just predictable enough to be comfortable without being boring, you could do a lot worse than Hostages. Collette has a steely resolve to her that isn't immediately apparent in her warm, expressive features. And the plenty-employed but perhaps under-appreciated Tate Donovan once again does a good spouse-with-a-secret, making his philandering husband a bit oily, but also decent. I also like the dynamic between Duncan's henchmen and their captives, each revealing some measure of humanity that, in certain small ways throughout, makes us actually root for them, too.
Hostages is by no means perfect television, but as an example of what the networks are still capable of doing if they hire the right people, it's an interesting, perhaps soon-to-be artifact. Between The Good Wife roaring back to elegant, electric life and this successfully jittery thriller, CBS is winning not only the network ratings war this season, but possibly even the quality one, too. Well, that might be a stretch, but they're doing pretty well in a very bad season.