Hostages: How Much Life Is in CBS' New "Limited Series"?
by Adam Bryant
CBS is trying something a little different with its new drama Hostages.
When CBS introduced it in May, executives called the show — a thriller about Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), a surgeon who, on the night before she’s set to operate on the president, is taken hostage with her family by an FBI agent-turned-terrorist named Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) who wants the POTUS dead — a “limited series.”
It’s a phrase that was thrown around a lot during the network upfronts, and it seems to have meant different things to different people. Is it a one-and-done miniseries? Is it the next American Horror Story-like anthology series? For the brains behind Hostages, it simply boils down to numbers.
“We definitely look at this as a series, [something] more akin to a cable series where they do fewer episodes than networks traditionally do,” executive producer Rick Eid tells TVGuide.com. “A highly serialized, action-packed thrill ride is better suited for 15 episodes. You get a better chance of having each chapter matter more because there are fewer. That’s the ultimate goal: that each episode will have more impact. It’s less diluted to do 15 than 22.”
Indeed, in the wake of The Following, networks seem to be willing to play into the abbreviated, so-called “cable model” of storytelling. And even though CBS tried its hand at this type of programming to great ratings success over the summer with Under the Dome, premiering a show like Hostages in the fall seems a bit risky for the one network that worked its way to No. 1 on the backs of case-of-the-week procedurals.
Fortunately for executive producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, he was able to convince CBS to take that risk. (The network will air 15 episodes without repeats, and the series will end its first season in February, with only slight interruption during the holidays.) “When you are doing something that is this intense and this much of a thriller, it’s hard to string out 22… and keep your suspense,” he says. “When we talked to CBS originally about it, we said… ‘The story of this show doesn’t work that way. It really has to be run in a row, and I think that’s what you are seeing. The shows that are doing … shorter orders, there’s no repeats. There’s no interruption. That’s because the stories or the series concepts dictate it.”
Eid admits that working within a strategy so different from CBS’ usual fare makes the producers’ job more difficult. “The onus is to make it compelling enough that people care what happens next, which is easy in theory but hard in reality,” he says. “You just hope the pilot is compelling enough that they go, ‘Now what?’”
And that “what” won’t necessarily be what the pilot suggests. Although Duncan threatens to hold Ellen’s husband (Tate Donovan) and kids (Quinn Shephard andMateus Ward) prisoner until she kills the president, the show won’t stick by the claustrophobic hostage situation premise for the entire first season. In fact, the show’s creators view the series’ title as a metaphor for the countless secrets that every character seems to be hiding.
“No matter how ‘normal’ your life is, you’re a hostage to your past decisions, flaws, insecurities, weaknesses,” Eid says. “We find these characters with mundane, real-life issues of a ‘typical’ family… and then this horrible situation happens and they’re forced to interact with each other in a way much different than they were. We’d like to think the family… is forced to confront these issues that they never would’ve.”
And while Ellen and Duncan are presented as the hero and the villain, respectively, producers promise to play with those expectations as the characters fight for control in their high-stakes situation. “[Duncan's] made peace with his own decision, and, based on his own complicated moral compass, he’s doing the right thing,” Eid says. “Killing anybody isn’t really justifiable, but in his mind, it is so. Ellen’s trying to save her family. She’s in an unwinnable situation trying to use her brains and skills as a surgeon to find a way out of this impossible conundrum. She’s more of a traditional hero… but everybody has complicated motives for what they’re doing. Whether they’re noble or evil or flawed or stupid is up to the audience.”
Adds Nachmanoff: “I’ve always been a fan of Hitchcock suspense films, and the way I tried to make the series work is to give the audience that feeling and that ride. You know what [Duncan] wants. You know what [Ellen] wants. They are two trains on a collision track. And what’s kind of fun and surprising is when you put a switcher in right before they collide, and now, we have a new problem. Every episode is another turn of this screw. What are the consequences of the last of the last decisions?”
But will an audience that has been burned by high-concept premises in the past have faith that this series, limited or otherwise, will deliver what it promises? After all it, whether or not the president is killed, certain threats have been made that would seemingly make it impossible to keep this group of people together on a permanent basis. The producers promise the show won’t simply build questions upon questions.
“We have a complete arc and plan for the season,” Nachmanoff says. Adds Eid: “Our goal is not to point a bunch of guns we don’t fire. We are hoping the elegance of the conundrum … is played out over the first season in a really acute, stressful, suspenseful way. We are not going to try to avoid the question. We are not going to shy away from the dilemma we threw out there.”
Hostages premieres Monday at 10/9c on CBS.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)