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.