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15 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Channel 4 has been taken hostage by bad US imports

With a patchy plot and shooting which looks like a bizarre advertisement, Hostages isn’t the type of high-calibre US television show that British viewers are becoming accustomed to.

By Rachel Cooke

Channel 4

The hint from Channel 4 is that Hostages (Saturdays, 9pm) will fill the gap left by Homeland, though it has tried to be clever about this, linking the programmes – both of which are US versions of Israeli series – by pointing out how different they are. I have two things to say about this. The first is that Homeland hasn’t left a gap; it went AWOL a long time ago. The second is that even if it had left a hole in the schedule, Hostages wouldn’t be able to fill it. People who drone on about how great US television is conveniently forget that the good stuff mostly comes from cable channels. Hostages is a network show – and it shows.

The plotting is devised for people with tiny attention spans and an urgent need to visit the refrigerator at least once every ten minutes. It’s stupid and silly and frenetic and boring: so stupid and silly and frenetic and boring that it has yet to be recommissioned for a second season.

The story goes like this. Toni Collette plays a thoracic surgeon called Ellen Sanders (is it my imagination or are glossy but trustworthy US television and movie characters almost always called Ellen?) who is scheduled to remove a suspect shadow from the president’s lung. The night before she is due to carry out this procedure, an armed gang breaks into her house and tells her that if she does not kill the leader of the free world while he is on the operating table, it will kill her family.

At the head of this gang is Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott, looking annoyingly hunky), a brilliant FBI agent. Why does Carlisle want the president to die? I’ve no idea, though this seems somehow to be linked to his wife, who has cancer. Perhaps his dastardly plot is just a complicated way of speeding up health-care reform.

The gang is able to control the family in two ways. First, its members are technical geniuses. In episode two, for instance, they force Ellen to implant GPS tracking devices under the skin of her husband and children. (Incidentally, I watched the second episode because I’m the most conscientious television reviewer in Britain, not because I longed to know if Ellen and Duncan develop some kind of weird sexual attraction to one another – although this is clearly where the story is going.)

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Second, thanks to a long and dogged surveillance operation, they have gathered a good deal of dirt on the family. Ellen’s vaguely sleazy husband, Brian (Tate Donovan), has been having an affair with his assistant and if he doesn’t encourage his wife to do the gang’s bidding, they will tell her just what he has been up to.

Meanwhile, Duncan has discovered Ellen’s daughter, Morgan (Quinn Shephard), with a pregnancy test in her hand, so he has a hold on her, too. Another of the gang knows that her son, Jake (Mateus Ward), has drug-related debts. Yes, that’s correct. They would rather their mum assassinate the president than discover what naughtiness they’ve been up to while she was busy at the hospital in her scrubs.

It’s all so preposterous and yet so utterly bland: the series, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (best known for CSI), is shot to look like an ad for a drug to aid erectile dysfunction. The Sanders live in a house that resembles a hotel, all half-raised blinds and Crate & Barrel sofas, and they own a dog so cute – it’s called Berkeley – that the gang members can’t bring themselves to kill him. “But I’m making pasta primavera!” says Ellen, the top surgeon, to her kids in an effort to make them (pre-hostage crisis) stay home. “Your mother wants some quality time together,” says Brian, arriving as back-up in his football coach gear.

Weirdest of all is Collette’s performance. Her eyes roll like pinballs, her bottom lip extends like a coastal shelf and her ears keep poking out of her curtain of hair as if even they longed to exude feeling – and yet she is about as compelling as a shopping trip to a branch of Bed Bath & Beyond. Will she kill President Kincaid? Oh, come on! What do you think? He’s almost certainly a Democrat and she’s a doctor. In the end, the fatal injection is about as likely to be administered as she is to wash her J Crew cashmere with her own fair hand. 

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