Why did US drama Hostages fail to deliver on expectations?

Season one of Hostages limped to a finale this past weekend on Channel 4 after a mere fifteen episodes. Produced by acclaimed Hollywood director Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Academy Award nominee Toni Collette, CBS’ latest drama series should, by rights, have gripped audiences and garnered critical acclaim. So what went wrong, and why was the show canned after just one stunted season?

Hostages had a curious premise for a drama series, revolving around Collete’s character of Dr Ellen Sanders, a Washington-based thoracic surgeon placed in the unenviable position of performing surgery on the President of the United States. That would be enough pressure for anybody, but things were about to get worse – as Sanders’ whole family were secretly held hostage by a rogue FBI agent, intent on seeing the surgeon kill the President during surgery. The deception and conspiracy runs deep within the White House, and the reasons for this would become clear as the season progressed.

The premise quickly piqued my interest – however, only a mere three episodes in, it became apparent that little thought had been given to how to spin the story out further. Pregnancies, affairs, White House moles, murders, betrayal, elicit romance – Hostages‘ scriptwriters pulled out all the stops to try and distract the audience into believing that there was more to the story than met the eye, but the end result was that the show’s plot became more implausible as the weeks progressed.

Much like many of the big new dramas that have come out of the States over the past few years – Under The Dome, Flash Forward and Terra Nova all immediately spring to mind – Hostages suffered from a lack of clear focus from the outset. As such, the frequent twists and turns served only to alienate this reviewer as the series progressed.

The only reason that I continued to watch Hostages until its bitter end is that I do not believe on giving up on a series once I have made a commitment. In the case of Hostages, I should have trusted my better judgement and saved myself a few precious hours.

I’m a big fan of long-term vision when it comes to storytelling, and believe that, whether it is a TV serialisation or a novel, it is essential to know exactly where your tale will culminate from the outset. Episodic television and funding concerns makes this difficult for scriptwriters, of course, but there is simply no excuse for sloppy storytelling or for taking cheap shortcuts.

To this day, The Sopranos arguably remains the best TV drama in recent memory, despite the many naysayers that critique the show’s finale. In the closing episode of The Sopranos‘ final season, I was captivated by the way in which the story drew together and long-running storylines came together. It validated the investment of time that I had put into watching the show, and ultimately made the finale all the more rewarding.

In January 2014, CBS’ network president Nina Tassler confirmed that the original planned season two of Hostages was cancelled and that it had “had its run.” Tassler also admitted, via Twitter, that, ”We learned a lot [in terms] of telling story.”

For a network the size of CBS to invest so much budget into securing a cast of this caliber and the production expertise of Jerry Bruckheimer, and to not consider whether the plot itself had enough longevity and creative mileage to lend itself to successful serialisation is greatly disappointing. Today’s audiences are not foolish and no matter how polished a product may appear, if it is without substance it will be destined to fail.

There is simply no substitute for solid storyline development and creating characters that viewers believe in. In Hostages, CBS failed to deliver either, lacing the show with morally ambiguous protagonists that ultimately only garnered indifference from a dwindling audience.