Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott are filming a tense exchange in front of a gleaming medical complex. They look as though they could be doctors comparing notes about a patient. But this is Hostages, CBS's twisty new conspiracy thriller, and looks are deceiving.
Collette plays renowned thoracic surgeon Ellen Sanders, but her companion, Duncan Carlisle (McDermott), is no healer. He's the rogue FBI agent who has taken her family prisoner in order to force her to kill a patient on her operating table. That patient: U.S. President Paul Kincaid (James Naughton). The doc's desperate and wily attempts to honor her Hippocratic oath while saving her family form the heart of the show.
This summer's Under the Dome proved that CBS could strike ratings gold with a nonprocedural limited series, and now the network is trying to replicate that success in the regular season with Hostages. Its sole new fall drama is a 15-episode cat-and-mouse thriller from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer in which all the action takes place over two weeks. "We're not as religious as 24 was about [time]," says executive producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, "but that compression gives the show the urgency we want."
The producers are also taking cues from Emmy-winning cable dramas. "When I first heard about Hostages," Nachmanoff says of the show, which is based on an Israeli TV project, "it sounded like a cable idea — ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation, like Breaking Bad's Walter White or Weeds' Nancy Botwin. We take inspiration from those series, but we do it in a way they don't. Our journey is with Ellen, the hero. She's a suburban mom and a successful surgeon, and we hope people identify with her as she goes mano a mano with Duncan."
McDermott, who played dark on the first two seasons of FX's American Horror Story, happily fulfills the antihero role. Where Ellen's motivations are clear, Duncan's are murky, and the actor will share only that "there are powerful reasons why he's part of a conspiracy to kill the president." Still, McDermott says, "I love Duncan's duality. When the show opens, he's an FBI hostage negotiator at a bank robbery, and the next time you see him, he's taking a family hostage."
Not that a network antihero would ever go completely dark. "We're going to tease out the question of how Duncan, a husband and father himself, got to this place — and how he can be redeemed," says McDermott. "He's not just a bad man doing bad things for no reason."
Collette, who won an Emmy for United States of Tara, is psyched to take on her new role. "I've never done anything like this," she says. "Ellen is a very stable woman, parent and citizen as well as a good surgeon, but then this incredible turn of events happens and pushes her to the limit. She finds out who she really is and what she's capable of." Suffice it to say, her tormenter has met his match: "Duncan seriously underestimates her," McDermott says with a smile. "Ellen is formidable."
As with any good conspiracy, it will be hard to tell the righteous from the wicked. McDermott's tip: "Don't trust anyone. Everyone has secrets." That includes the members of the outwardly happy Sanders clan. They're hiding an unwanted pregnancy, infidelity, drug dealing and business woes — and that's just for a start. As Duncan uncovers each secret, says McDermott, "he'll use them to keep the family in psychological handcuffs."
Whatever Duncan's motives, life for the captives is one of uncertainty and fear. "The show really lets us imagine what it would be like if a family was actually taken hostage," says Tate Donovan (Damages), who plays Brian, Ellen's less-than-perfect spouse. "And some of those scenes can be tough. My character is completely powerless against these men with guns. It was difficult as an actor to play and as a man to watch. What happens after that is intense, clever, complicated fun."
While Nachmanoff provides the now-mandatory post-Killing assurances that all major storylines will be resolved by season's end, there's another challenge in the air. "Everybody is intrigued by the show," says McDermott, "but they have one concern: How do we sustain it for seasons to come? That's a really cool problem. You know exactly where so many shows are going that you fall asleep halfway through. You don't know where we're going. I love that!"
The producers are confident that there will be plenty of stories to tell. "There are a lot of different things we can do with these characters," says Nachmanoff. "This political conspiracy can unfold through other seasons with new players involved."
Hostages premieres Monday, Sept. 23 at 10/9c on CBS.
For more on the new fall shows like Mom, The Crazy Ones, and We Are Men, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, Sept. 12!
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