Review: ‘Blacklist’ wows, ‘Hostages’ tries but fails

Toni Collette, left, stars with Tate Donovan, second from right, Quinn Shephard, right, and Mateus Ward in “Hostages.”
(Nicole Rivelli / CBS)

Following the success of shows as disparate as “Homeland,” “House of Cards” and “Scandal,” our nation’s capital has become the thrilling center of the universe, and politics has become the new police precinct. Two of the more anticipated shows of this fall season, “Hostages” on CBS and “The Blacklist” on NBC, follow D.C.-based stories and face off, beginning Monday at 10 p.m.

Which is so bad for “Hostages"; though it gets points for ambition, “The Blacklist” blows it out of the water.

One of an increasing number of television hybrids, “Hostages” attempts to unite a cable-model show with a broadcast-network audience. Creator Jeffrey Nachmanoff uses 15 episodes instead of the traditional 22 to tell the story of an “ordinary” family caught up in multiple levels of political intrigue, with each episode covering a single day in the narrative.

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The pilot, however, spans two days and raises more questions than it answers. Just as rock-star surgeon/devoted wife ‘n’ mother Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) is preparing to operate on the president of the United States, she, her husband (Tate Donovan) and their two teenage children are taken hostage by a team of well-spoken and good-looking kidnappers headed by Dylan McDermott.

“Hostages": A review of the new television series “Hostages” in the Sept. 23 Calendar section identified Jeffrey Nachmanoff as the creator of the CBS series. It was developed by Alon Aranya and Nachmanoff and based on an upcoming Israeli series by Omri Givon and Rotem Shamir. —

The group’s demand? That Ellen accidentally-on-purpose kill the president.

Keep in mind that McDermott plays Duncan Carlisle, who early on establishes himself FBI agent extraordinaire, the kind who can’t turn around without a look of grim determination and D-minor incidental music. He also has a wife apparently in a coma and an adorable daughter named Sawyer (who he, regrettably, calls Soy-soy). So what’s a Good Guy like him doing in a situation like this?


Not bringing the fear, that’s for sure. Collette does her anxious best to convince the audience that the stakes are high, but it quickly becomes clear that Duncan and his team are not going to kill anyone anytime soon.

Though their uncovering of the family’s many (as in a hilarious number of) secrets would result in hardship, nothing seems on par with, you know, killing the president. POTUS is played by James Naughton, who wears stripy pajamas, for heaven’s sake, so he’s not probably not a homegrown Stalin.

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By pilot’s end, the tension level is more “Parenthood” than “Homeland.” One suspects the “Hostages” of the title refers to Carlisle as well as Ellen and her family, but who knows?

McDermott does little save look square-jawed, but Collette and Donovan are always interesting to watch. Many viewers, including myself, will no doubt tune into Episode 2 if only out of curiosity.

There’s a more desirable reason to watch a show, however, and that is the sheer swoony pleasure of watching James Spader chew through scenes and scenery with epicurean delight. And then to watch him ask for a solid gold toothpick when he’s done.

“The Blacklist” should provide NBC with the breakout dramatic hit it so desperately needs and in a way that celebrates good, old-fashioned broadcast television. Creator Jon Bokenkamp matches up a deliciously absurd uber-story (20 years later, rogue spy turned freelance criminal comes in from the cold …) with the mother of all procedural shticks (and he’s going to bring all his friends and enemies with him).

But the ace in the hole is Spader. One look at that face — those knowing eyes half-veiled by drooping lids, that tucked in smirk of a smile split wide with genius mirth — and you’re in. Tell us what you want, oh international criminal savant in a fedora, because we’ll give you anything.


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Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington does indeed have many demands, for which he is prepared to offer disaster-averting, lifesaving intel. But his main request is that he deal only with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a hotshot profiler about to start her first day with the FBI.

Mid-adorable “how could I oversleep on my first day” banter with her husband, Boone’s character is whisked away to an undisclosed location where Red is chained, Hannibal Lecter-like, in a box.

And so it begins. Clarice, the quid pro quo of jaded wisdom with fresh-faced brilliance, mercifully free from the nausea of cannibalism and the skinning of young women.

Red clearly has a paternal interest in Elizabeth; although she knows of no connection between them. He is going to make her career by allowing her to help him take down his Blacklist, a group of Moriarty-like criminals so deft that the FBI doesn’t know they exist. Yes! Eastern European terrorists!

Red’s first “gift” to the feds is a bad guy with an accent recently arrived with a nefarious plan that involves the abduction of a child and several layers of accomplices who all have super-cool nicknames. All the hallmarks of political thriller are accounted for — visualization boards, exploding cars and oh, which wire to cut?

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But there is at least one truly surprising twist of plot, which is reassuring. Even a big-personality-driven procedural like this one does not live on clever dialogue alone. It needs smartly written story lines to keep things interesting.


Red’s antagonistic history with FBI head Harold Cooper (Henry Lennix) will also no doubt bear fruit, while Elizabeth is entering a competitive camaraderie with Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff). The show revolves around her dance with Red, or rather his dance with her, because Spader is the one who has all the moves.

Boone brings the requisite youthful loveliness, and she is convincing enough as a profiler with her own painful past. More important, she seems to know just how much room Spader needs, which is good. Because if she, like her character, pays attention, he will teach her everything she needs to know.



Where: CBS

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

‘The Blacklist’

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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