Sure beats a stock home invasion

Prisoners: Armed men lay down the rules in a scene from Hostages (above), which stars Toni Collette (left) as a mother told to commit a crime to save her family

Prisoners: Armed men lay down the rules in a scene from Hostages (above), which stars Toni Collette (left) as a mother told to commit a crime to save her family


Hostages is a TV series that presents its viewers with a number of puzzles. This is not just because the story it tells is full of mysteries (although, for the record, it is), but also because the show itself is fundamentally a puzzle. 

Watching it brings to mind all manner of questions: How did this show get made? Can it possibly have a second season? How will it sustain its premise for more than a few episodes?

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Hostages is that it was made by CBS, the biggest and arguably the least imaginative of all the American free-to-air networks. In its home market, CBS conquered the airwaves by creating one stupendously successful series – CSI –  and then cranked out dozens of clones of the original. It is not usually associated with unusual or experimental programming.

Hostages, on the other hand, is unusual and interesting in lots of ways. Firstly, it's short. The network describes it as a "limited series", lying somewhere between a standard 22-episode TV season and an old-fashioned miniseries. This seems to be a positive sign. Fewer episodes presumably means fewer story fillers and faster-paced storytelling.

Secondly, the story it tells is complex and arcs across the entire season. I won't go into too much detail about what the story is actually about, as much of the fun of this show comes from discovering this organically. In brief, it involves a family that is taken hostage by a group of armed men. The leader of the hostage-takers (Dylan McDermott) instructs the mother (Toni Collette) to commit an enormous crime. If she refuses, he will kill her entire family.

She tries to fight back, using all the resources and guile she can muster. Adventures in game theory ensue, with each side using a variety of strategies to coerce the other side into doing what they want. Things get even more complicated as it emerges that all of these characters –  hostages and hostage-takers alike – have secrets and hidden motivations that they are keeping from each other.

With its stratagems and mysteries and conspiracies, Hostages is undeniably entertaining. Every episode is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, giving us new information about who these people are and how they fit together. And the cast that drives this story is equally impressive. Collette in particular was outstanding in United States of Tara, and it's gratifying to see her attached to a project that will attract more mainstream exposure.

That is not to say that Hostages is perfect. For one thing, it could use a few lessons in subtlety. The writing and direction are both somewhat over the top, and big plot events are often announced with a literal bang. It would be a better series if it understood that, when attempting to build up dramatic tension, less really can be more.

More importantly, the very premise of Hostages raises uncomfortable questions about where its narrative will go once the initial excitement has worn off. It is reasonable to wonder whether a show about a family being held prisoner in a house will start to get old, and whether the writers have a plan to keep up the momentum when that happens. Does Hostages have an end point in mind, or do the writers plan simply to string episodes together as long as the ratings are good?

It seems to me that the most appropriate answer to these questions is: let's worry about that later. For now, the most important thing to know about Hostages is that this is a taut, well-made TV thriller. It's also an interesting creative experiment. As with all experiments, there is a chance that it might fail. But, regardless of the end result, it's going to be fun to see how it plays out.


Hostages is shown on Tuesdays at 8pm on M-Net



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