If you’ve seen The Ref, the 1994 Christmas comedy in which Denis Leary’s crook holds Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis and their bratty kids hostage and ends up becoming a reluctant therapist and father confessor, it’ll be tough to get invested in the new CBS show Hostages. This drama about a rogue FBI agent (Dylan McDermott) who kidnaps the family of the president’s doctor (Toni Collette) and demands she kill him during an operation is as preposterous as NBC’s The Blacklist, but it lacks the latter’s saving graces: dark wit, and a willingness to embrace its clichés and have fun with them. I kept wanting Hostages turn into a comedy — or barring that, an even more over-the-top thriller, one that reveled in its ridiculousness and wasn’t afraid to get campy on us.
Too bad writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff seems blithely unaware of all the situations that tempt us to laugh at the show rather than with it. When McDermott’s agent Carlisle and his buddies materialize inside Dr. Ellen Sanders’s home and terrorize her and her husband Brian (Tate Donovan) and their teenage kids, they conveniently seem to invade during a grand confluence of crises. As the disgruntled Carlisle and his ski-masked goons descend on the property, Brian furtively lies to Ellen that a text from a mysterious “JC” is a reminder to take a particular dish out of the oven. Meanwhile, teenage daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) pees on a home pregnancy test, but doesn’t get to react to the result because at the exact moment she shakes it and looks at it, one of Carlisle’s men bursts into the bathroom.
Just think of how much fun John Waters or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (Airplane!) would have had with this material. It’s a treasure trove of dumb, but Hostages treats it like a repository of Great Drama. Collette does the trembly faced thing because she doesn’t have much else to play, and McDermott falls back on the chokey voiced self-righteousness that’s too often his stock-in-trade (although at least season one of American Horror Story found something pathetic and poignant in it). James Naughton plays the president; garwsh, ya think Carlisle has good reasons for wanting him dead?
Unless this show is intended as a one-and-done season-long miniseries, I can’t imagine how it could possibly hold our attention. The only recent show I can think of that was this spatially and temporally contained yet held the viewer’s attention from start to finish was Prison Break, season one — and look what happened once the convicts got out of the joint: a whole lot of nothing.