For a series that bills itself as a twisty, edge-of-your-seat drama, Hostages is relatively light on thrills. A product of the Jerry Bruckheimer assembly line, its pilot episode is nimble in its pacing, wasting little time setting up the face-off between Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and rogue F.B.I. agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott). Yet, even as the wheels of the plot begin to turn expeditiously, Hostages feels as if it’s impulsively running on autopilot, periodically checking off boxes on a laundry list of genre clichés: a stone-faced antagonist with a hidden agenda who has overly sentimental reasons for resorting to nefarious acts; a family whose own secrets likely pose more of a threat than the furtive intruders taking up residence in their home; the looming sense that anyone could abandon loyalties and switch sides at any moment. The screenplay does an adequate job of building rising action, but fails to establish meaningful stakes: Though the lives of Ellen’s loved ones and the leader of the free world are on the line, Hostages is too busy staging a prosaic cat-and-mouse game to pay much attention to the emotional vulnerability of its subjugated characters.
Carlisle’s plan to make Dr. Sanders “accidentally” kill U.S. President Paul Kincaid (James Naughton) during routine lung surgery while holding her husband, daughter, and son captive is rather dimwitted in its approach, and deals with subject matter—a blend of domestic and political tensions—more thoughtfully explored on shows like Homeland and The Americans. Of the two leads, Collette fares better at delivering her share of frantic theatrical barks than McDermott, whose specious take on a homegrown terrorist is bereft of urgency. With his squinty-eyed, unshaven demeanor, Carlisle is a consistently dull villain who sleepwalks through his transgressions, and his overreaching attempts to build trust with the Sanders clan equate to nothing more than a cool-guy-who-doesn’t-look-at-explosions-type grasping at straws in a volatile situation.
Carlisle’s motivations are a mystery at the outset, but it’s made clear that his wife is ill, and apparently the only way to restore her health involves the assassination of America’s commander in chief. The Saunders household has its own set of potentially precarious circumstances, later used by Carlisle and his crew of musclebound home invaders as blackmail to keep them in line during their detainment. Ellen’s husband, Brian (Tate Donovan), is entangled in a steamy extramarital affair, daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) is facing an unexpected pregnancy, and son Jake (Mateus Ward) owes an impatient drug dealer a sufficient amount of capital. These details are piled on in such rapid succession, clumsily coinciding with Carlisle’s misguided power trip and a ham-handed subplot involving a turncoat White House aide, that what minimal amount of sympathy is produced for those perceived as “the good guys” comes off as stereotypical narrative shoehorning, focused more on satisfying an episodic quota than treading uncharted dramatic territory.