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WashingTelevision: Crisis Recap, Pilot

Kids of Washington’s elite get kidnapped, and Dermot Mulroney loses a finger.

Gillian Anderson has a helicopter, and she will land it anywhere she damn well pleases. Image by Vivian Zink for NBC.

Crisis, which debuted last night, is a surprisingly gripping thriller about the horrors that befall a group of rich, overeducated teens when their cell phones enter a network-free dead zone. Without Snapchat and texting to sustain them, the glossy, overprivileged youths fall into a state of prolonged insanity, and suddenly it’s less like Degrassi and more like Donner: The Next Generation.

This is actually not true. In last night’s pilot episode, the teens fared remarkably well when their school bus (en route from a Sidwell Friends-esque institution named Ballard to some kind of volunteer mission that isn’t important) got lured into a dead zone, and they actually all remained pretty calm when masked men with guns kidnapped them and frogmarched them into a truck, from where they were taken to a weird house with oddly detailed marble floors. This is the starting point of Crisis, which follows the high-risk, low-reward TV blueprint of basing a 13-episode series on a plot so flimsy it could barely sustain a 90-minute Liam Neeson movie (see also: CBS’s Hostages, which got horrifyingly bad once Toni Collette figured out how not to kill the President in the first episode).

And yet. Crisis has its strengths, although they might not be the first ones you’d think of. Dermot Mulroney, who’s been brutally neglected by TV since his woodenly rakish turn as Gavin on Friends, plays a disappointingly un-handsome former CIA analyst named Francis Gibson (baddies named Francis are in vogue these days) who may or may not be either a mild-mannered schlump of a dad or a dastardly criminal mastermind. Gillian Anderson is flawlessly brittle as Meg Fitch, the CEO of a vast multinational corporation whose daughter, queen bee Amber (Halston Sage), is one of the kids on the bus. Rachael Taylor is FBI agent Susie Dunn, Fitch’s estranged sister, who, despite appearing to be the same age as Amber is actually secretly her mother, and who’s been charged with investigating the abduction by a boss who wants her to abuse her relationship with her sister and obviously doesn’t know what conflict of interest means.

The weakest part of the pilot involves the teenagers, who are such thinly drawn clichés that they could only have been written by a troupe of middle-aged people who’ve never procreated. Beyond Amber, who’s picture-perfect and intimidates all the others with her Rachel McAdams good looks and faux-caring attitude, there’s Kyle (Adam Scott Miller), the son of the President, who brashly welcomed his new Secret Service agent (Lance Gross) to “brat patrol.” There’s also Beth Anne, Gibson’s estranged daughter, who hates him and is beyond mortified that he’s chaperoning her school trip. Beth Anne has a friend who draws pictures of Amber in his sketch book (slightly creepy). And then there’s the obligatory overweight, unpopular kid, Anton (Joshua Erenberg), whom agent Marcus Finley (Gross) managed to save after he got shot (not actually the kid he was supposed to be protecting, but never mind).

The first hour of the debut episode (part two of the pilot airs next Sunday) had so many twists and turns that things started to feel a bit like a Scandinavian crime serial. And while learning that Susie had a child, abandoned said child with her sister, and threw herself into a career pursuing bad guys for the FBI feels hopelessly rote (just once it would be nice to see a young woman working for an intelligence agency who isn’t doing it to fill the aching void in her heart), the suspense carried the episode well into next week. Who among us doesn’t want to know why Francis also draws creepy sketches of things in his notebook and then crosses them out (and didn’t wince when he lost his finger)? As kidnapping techniques go, it’s snooze-worthy but as a way to manipulate his daughter into caring about him again, it’s genius.

Some other thoughts:

Gillian Anderson has a helicopter, and she will damn well land it anywhere she pleases, thank you very much.

Will Finley (a DC cop before his first day with the Secret Service went so disastrously wrong) get in trouble for saving Anton instead of, you know, the reason he has a job?

Initially the premise for the show may have led people to believe that Kyle was the target, but it’s apparently much more complicated than that, since he was supposed to be at a summit in Ireland with his dad, and not on the bus. Most of the kids seem to have parents who figure into this nefarious scheme in one way or another, even Anton, whose father does things with drones. And the South African (Arnold Vosloo, a.k.a. Imhotep in The Mummy movies) who threw torn-up paper forms at Susie is clearly evil.

Anton, FWIW, was the most believable and engaging of all the kids, crying, “I have a short stride!” when Finley told him to run faster.

“The guy who’s supposed to protect Kyle just shot the other guy who’s supposed to protect Kyle.” If things get much more complicated in this show, I’m hoping we’ll see more of this eloquent teen recapping.

Let’s get some love for the Scala & Kolacny Brothers cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” and the infinitely eerie sight of a sniper rifle beam on Beth Anne at her birthday party.

What did you think of last night’s Crisis? Let us know in the comments.