NEW YORK — In recent years, cable television has generated raves for its complex serial dramas even as broadcast networks continue to ring up exponentially more viewers with traditional fare.
Beginning Sept. 23, CBS will pose a tantalizing question: Can the two ideas be combined?
In one of the most closely observed experiments of the season, the network will unveil "Hostages," a dramatic thriller set in Washington that has far more in common with cable programs such as "Homeland" and "The Americans" than with CBS' bread-and-butter procedurals such as "CSI" and "NCIS." The goal? To offer the sort of dark, character-driven entertainment that's common to cable with the high concept — and marketing muscle — of the country's most popular TV outlet.
"Having a family drama at the center of a big conspiracy show allows us to combine elements you don't usually see at the same time," said series executive producer, writer and director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, a cable and feature-film veteran ("Homeland," "The Day After Tomorrow"). "I've been talking about it as 'Downton Abbey' meets '24.'"
As laid out in the pilot, the premise of "Hostages" is both simple and bold. An accomplished surgeon and suburban mother named Ellen (Toni Collette) is set to operate on the president of the United States when she, her husband (Tate Donovan) and their two teenage children are taken hostage by a rogue FBI agent (Dylan McDermott) and his team. The group's demand of Ellen: Kill the president during surgery or risk harm to her and her family.
As the hostages are left to wrestle with their choices — this is a thriller, after all, and secrets abound — Ellen is confronted with a daunting Sophie's choice, raising questions about loyalty, family and patriotism.
The season will run over a cable-like 15 episodes instead of the usual network order of 22 or so. Each installment will take place over the course of one day, which is sure to elicit comparisons to Fox's long-running Kiefer Sutherland show, though this series deviates significantly from "24" by focusing on ordinary people.
That doesn't mean "Hostages" lacks for intensity.
'It's so intense'
On a serene August morning in a Long Island park, some familiar sights appear.
A gaggle of high-school runners jog in formation. A golf course hosts some bleary-eyed duffers. A middle-aged woman walks her Schnauzer.
But in one corner of the park, in front of a host of cameras and monitors, a more serious scene is playing out.
A black Mercedes runs a silver SUV off a park road, spinning up dirt as if its tires are angry.
Soon McDermott has emerged from the black car, snarling as he walks up to the SUV and its occupant, Donovan. McDermott grabs him hard by the lapel, then demands to know where Ellen has gone. With a mix of fear and smirkiness, Donovan says she's vanished.
The showdown will serve as a prelude to Collette's character breaking down from the stress.
"It's so intense," Donovan said between takes. "There was a scene we were shooting the other day — a mock execution where kids are being shot at and Toni's character is losing her [stuff] and it's so intense. We're all like 'This is disturbing.' Even between takes we're all like 'This is so disturbing.'"
Also characterizing the show is the quickness of many of the exchanges — there is very little expository dialogue — and a premise that may strike some as a tad extravagant. It would be fantastical enough for an FBI agent to cook up a sophisticated assassination plot; it's even wilder for that to happen while a family is held captive for weeks.
"I think it's the first question a lot of us asked," McDermott said as he took a breath from terrorizing the other characters. "How are you going to sustain this? Can you just keep a family or a president locked up for five seasons?"
Nachmanoff said there were narrative means to free people to move around, thus avoiding the claustrophobia of a traditional hostage scenario, while Collette noted that she thought the human element would help.
"I'm very aware if you don't keep it grounded it can seem very heightened," she said, adding, "A lot of times with a thriller or a hostage situation, we know that it happens, but it seems to happen on the other side of the world, to the other guy. What we're all trying to do is make it feel like it's happening right now to people you know."
Executive produced by big-screen powerhouse Jerry Bruckheimer, who is also behind CBS' "CSI" franchise, and produced by Warner Bros. Television, "Hostages" derives loosely from an Israeli format — another similarity it shares with "Homeland." Like that show's North Carolina set, "Hostages" also shoots somewhere else in lieu of the more logistically complex Washington, using an office building across from the run-down Nassau Coliseum as the site of the hospital, and the midcentury greenery of Long Island suburban parks as a stand-in for D.C.'s Rock Creek Park.
All these choices come with high stakes. If the series succeeds, it will not only add a new conspiracy thriller to Hollywood's growing canon but also, perhaps more important for the TV industry, demonstrate that broadcast can beat cable at its own game.
"Hostages" certainly borrows plenty from its non-broadcast brethren. Its episodes are open-ended, making traditional syndication more difficult. Its principal actors — Collette, McDermott and Donovan —have all recently starred on a high-end cable drama. And then there's that 15-episode order, as the show runs a "Homeland"-like schedule from September to early winter.
"This takes us quite a bit further than we've been before," said CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. "With 'The Good Wife,' there are closed-ended cases," she said, noting the network's hybrid hit, "and 'Under the Dome' is serialized but it's in the summer. This is an in-season show that's very serialized."
Tassler added that she believed the show was the rare piece of programming that could exist pretty much as is on cable or broadcast. Bruckheimer called it "provocative drama that you don't often see on broadcast."
Still, skeptics will raise questions about whether CBS can successfully compete in this realm. Executives at cable channels such as HBO are known for a hands-off approach that isn't typically in the DNA of broadcast networks, which are trying to satisfy a mass audience. There's also the perennial issue of limitations on language and other content.
And though the show offers something for everyone — Tassler said that with the thriller conceit and family stakes she imagines the show "aimed equally" at men and women — it enters a crowded Monday schedule that lays claim to both genders with ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and ABC's "Castle." (The show also will compete against NBC's buzzy criminal-mastermind program "The Blacklist.")
Finally, new shows take time to build an audience. Highly serialized programs that last only 15 episodes don't have the luxury of ranging around for their sweet spot.
"I think once they watch it, people will love it and momentum will build. But the challenge is, of course, getting people to it," McDermott said.
A white-knuckled TV industry stands tensely by.