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WashingTelevision: Hostages Recap, Season One, Episode One, Pilot

CBS’s Washington-set drama puts the life of the President of the United States on the line.

Toni Collette stars as Ellen Sanders in Hostages. Photograph by Jeff Neumann for CBS.

When I first started hearing about Hostages, CBS’s new drama about a surgeon, played by the great Toni Collette, whose family is held captive by masked gunmen unless she agrees to kill the President of the United States during surgery, I had only one question: How can this possibly play out as a TV series? As Sophie Gilbert pointed out yesterday, eventually the surgeon is going to have to make a decision about whether to commit murder on the operating table. Even if the series is described as “limited,” it’s still slated for 13 to 15 episodes—which is a lot of delay tactics to employ. And the pilot, despite some gratifyingly tense moments, did little to dissuade those worries. Read on for the recap (spoilers, obviously, included).

The episode opens on the Sanders family—mom Ellen (Collette), dad Brian (a very gray-haired Tate Donovan), teenage daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard), and younger teen son Jake (Mateus Ward, who—fun fact!—played Young Stevie on Weeds for two episodes)—as they sit on the couch, a football game on the TV in the background. It would be a touching family tableau except for the anxious looks on their faces, and as the camera pans around we see the source of their fear: black-clad intruders in ski masks pointing machine guns at our couch-bound heroes.

From there the show flashes back to 12 hours and begins filling in the characters. Ellen is smart and warm but works too much, which strains her relationship with her husband and kids—who, it turns out, all have secrets. Brian is a Jimmy Cooper-style struggling businessman who is also having an affair; mood-swingy Morgan has a secret boyfriend with a truck who has secretly knocked her up; and Jake is selling drugs and owes his dealer a lot of money. Got all that? Good, because now it’s time to meet FBI agent Duncan “The Rules Don’t Apply to Me” Carlisle (Dylan McDermott), introduced during a bank hostage situation in Southeast. His quick thinking and unconventional approach save the day blah blah you know the type. He also has a comatose wife and a young daughter named Sawyer with the truly nauseating nickname “Soy Soy,” whom he sends to stay with her grandparents for a while. Why? Because Carlisle is one of the masked invaders who take the Sanders hostage—along with Sandrine Holt (House of Cards’ Gillian Cole). Also the President’s chief of staff is in on the plan.

Though Carlisle’s motives are murky, his plan is clear: During the President’s surgery, Ellen is to inject him with a toxin that will cause him to die; if she doesn’t, Carlisle and co. will kill her family. The group has been following them for months, learning their secrets (though it appears they only just found out about Morgan’s pregnancy and Jake’s side business), and Carlisle attempts to use Brian’s affair as motivation for him to convince his wife to cooperate, which of course works because he is Jimmy Cooper if he were born a decade and a half earlier and had married rich. Ellen, because she is Principled, briefly flirts with the idea of cutting off a finger to get herself out of the situation but ultimately can’t do it; instead, she heads reluctantly to the hospital with Carlisle’s toxin hidden in a lipstick case. But because we need to get to episode two somehow, she manages to slip the President a blood thinner, delaying the surgery by two weeks. As a reporter outside the hospital asks her whether she is disappointed by the delay, she says, turning steely eyes directly on the camera, “I don’t give up that easy.”

Some thoughts:

• I know only one episode has aired, but I already think Toni Collette deserves better. It’s possible that in future episodes Ellen will get more interesting as she’s forced to claw her way out of increasingly difficult situations, but thus far, despite Collette’s talent, the character is just kind of flat and clichéd.

• According to the LA Times, each episode will take place over the course of a single day, presumably covering the two weeks until the President’s rescheduled surgery. Hope the Sanders have some board games stashed away.

• I am way more interested in the kidnappers than in the family so far. Rhys Coiro’s sympathetic Kramer expresses concern that his teenage hostage is dealing drugs, and shows Jake his beloved dog isn’t actually dead because he feels bad. Even Carlisle hides Morgan’s pregnancy test from Ellen at her panicked request, insisting all the while that it’s none of his business. Interestingly the lone female, Holt’s Maria, is portrayed as the most brutal, nearly shooting Morgan’s boyfriend and clubbing Brian in the back of the head. Is she just the rookie with everything to prove, or does she have something else at stake?

• The dialogue is laughably heavy-handed. Sample line: “Don’t think of it as killing the President … think of it as saving your family.” Speaking of the President (James Naughton), he’s barely an outline of a character after the first episode—not the best for making the audience care about his life hanging in the balance.

• I love Kate Burton, who plays the First Lady, but it’s a bit odd to see her in yet another White House (though I’m sure Scandal’s Sally Langston would be more than happy to have that much pull with the President).

Did you tune in for Hostages last night? Let us know what you thought in the comments!

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