The 2013-14 television season has already thrown us a curve: The soft opening Monday night of CBS’ handsomely produced thriller mini-series “Hostages,” which failed to attract the kind of interest critics and other pundits have anticipated since the network revealed this distinctive show last May. Instead, the 10 p.m. hour belonged to NBC’s snazzy new procedural psycho-drama “The Blacklist” and ABC’s comfy crime drama “Castle,” a reliably dependable gem that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Given its serialized nature, it is doubtful that “Hostages” will pick up the kind of steam required to survive on a big broadcast schedule if its audience doesn’t at least level off (let alone grow) during its second episode next Monday, which would make it a mere disappointment rather than an outright failure. In other words, unless something good happens for “Hostages” next week there may be no place for it to go but down -- although one can always hope that DVR and VOD viewing will pull it out of the fire.
“Hostages” may be a tough sell for three significant reasons. First, it has been positioned as a “maybe mini-series” like CBS’ summer hit “Under the Dome,” which means that if it’s successful, like “Dome,” it will be promoted from a one-shot mini to a two-season series, and maybe continue for more seasons beyond that. Conversely, if it doesn’t make a lot of noise, it will be wrapped up by January and that will be that. (Executive Producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff has explained to the press that the current “Hostages” storyline, which at its core involves terrorists trying to force a doctor to kill the President of the United States during brain surgery, will be satisfactorily concluded during this first fifteen-episode mini-season and that a new story will begin next year -- if there is a next year.)
This “maybe mini” strategy is all well and good for an experimental summer series like “Dome,” where the stakes are relatively low, but it is risky business in a critically important time period at the start of the “traditional” TV season. This is especially true at CBS, the home of dependable (and dependably scheduled) procedural crime dramas with largely self-contained episodes. It may be that the CBS audience doesn’t know what to make of “Hostages” and is therefore reluctant to get involved with it.
Second, “Hostages” is the kind of serious adult drama that is often described as being of “basic cable” quality, like CBS’s “The Good Wife” (still the best drama on broadcast television). There may be something to this, in that it would seem to be targeted to the same smart, sophisticated, passionate viewers who have made so many smart, sophisticated and passionate basic cable series into phenomena of popular culture, or at least brand-identifying successes for their networks. If that’s true, then the best hope for “Hostages” may be to grab the attention of the very people who are currently immersed in the astounding final episodes of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” or BBC America’s emotionally charged mystery “Broadchurch” (which is every bit as powerful as “Breaking Bad”) or FX’s sizzling “Sons of Anarchy,” the ballsiest show on television, especially this season, with a story that was kicked off by a mass murder at a grade school
Can “Hostages” stand in the company of these shows? I like to think so -- at least for now. But if the audience for such shows doesn’t agree, who will come around to watch it?
Lastly, “Hostages” has the misfortune of being scheduled opposite NBC’s “The Blacklist,” another of this new season’s new dramas that is widely regarded by critics and other observers as one of the best of this freshman class. “The Blacklist” has been more solidly positioned as an ongoing network drama that serves up weekly stories while slowly unveiling details of a mysterious mythology. The central character here (a scary-smart master criminal on the FBI’s most-wanted list who turns himself in to the authorities so that he can assist them in apprehending other criminal masterminds while advancing his own secret agenda) is as irresistible as the actor who portrays him, the always compelling James Spader.
“The Blacklist,” of course, also benefits as the lead-out to NBC’s Emmy-winning powerhouse “The Voice.”
What we may have here is that most frustrating of broadcast television circumstances: The scheduling in the same time period of two of the medium’s best new shows, which often guarantees that one of them will suffer -- this despite all the new viewing options available to everybody. The solution here may be for CBS to move the durable “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (a show that would likely hold up opposite “The Blacklist”) from Wednesday to Monday and shift “Hostages” to Wednesday at 10, where it should have an easier time against NBC’s unremarkable “Ironside” and ABC’s vulnerable “Nashville.” “Hostages” might also benefit from having “Criminal Minds” as its lead-in.