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'Hostages'

The new drama debuts Monday, Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. on CBS

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It’s not easy to work an MC Hammer joke into a tense life-or-death thriller, but somehow Toni Collette has managed to do it. It’s a blazingly hot August day on the Long Island set of CBS’ new series Hostages, and Collette — starring as a D.C. surgeon whose family is taken captive by high-tech kidnappers — is shooting a sequence in which she frantically searches her husband’s office for her family’s passports. Suddenly sensing someone approaching, she grabs a hammer left nearby and holds it up, ready to strike one of her captors…but, alas, it’s just her husband’s mistress (Hilarie Burton). After multiple takes of their meeting, a slaphappy Collette picks up the prop and quips, ”Hammer time!”

You can’t blame Collette for attempting to lighten the mood, since there’s not a helluva lot of giggling on Hostages. CBS’ only new drama this fall is an ambitious, serialized white-knuckle conspiracy thriller mixed with a complicated family saga. The series follows Dr. Ellen Sanders (Collette), who’s set to remove a tumor from the president (James Naughton). The night before the surgery, however, she and her husband, Brian (Argo‘s Tate Donovan), and their two teens, daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) and son Jake (Mateus Ward), find themselves at the mercy of a gang of kidnappers, led by (seemingly) rogue FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (American Horror Story‘s Dylan McDermott), who has an ultimatum: Ellen must kill the U.S. leader during surgery or her family dies. ”When I first pitched the show, I tried to describe it using other shows because it’s a bit like Downton Abbey meets 24,” explains executive producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff (Homeland). ”You have all of those interfamilial relationship stories. Now you put all of that against the fact that you have a man standing behind the door aiming a gun at your head, it just supercharges all of these story lines.” Adds Collette, ”It was an absolute page-turner when I was reading it. I’ve never been involved in a story with this genre before, and it’s the type of thing that I like to watch just as an audience member.”

The 15-episode series, based on an Israeli project, is also a markedly different type of show for a network known for highly successful but also decidedly formulaic procedurals (see: CSI, NCIS, Hawaii Five-0). ”The beauty of CBS is they’re the number-one network,” says Nachmanoff. ”What better place to try something different? They can afford to be bold.” The network certainly took some risks while pursuing the series, which at one point looked like it was going to Fox. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler admitted to reporters this summer that she tracked down Jerry Bruckheimer Television executive Jonathan Littman at his niece’s bat mitzvah in order to land the series. ”She wanted it,” confirms exec producer Jerry Bruckheimer. ”[CBS president] Les [Moonves] called me. When you get the head of the corporation calling, you’ve got to go with your instincts.”

Part of the excitement (and concern) surrounding Hostages is, Where does this show go for the next 14 episodes? Knowing people would have doubts about its sustainability, producers actually shot an extended trailer for the entire season and showed it to advertisers during CBS’ upfront presentation. Nachmanoff insists he and his team have the answers: ”Once we finished the pilot, I joined with Rick Eid, my other executive producer on this, and the two of us really sat down and spent a month plotting out what we felt were the main story points for this season.” To open up the series, by episode 2 the family will be allowed out of the house and will even eventually attempt to escape (hence Ellen searching for the passports). ”It’s not about a family tied up on their couch,” says Collette of the series. ”They continue to be monitored, but the captors are smart and they know that the family has to get back out into the world and continue to look normal.” Adds McDermott, who’s been embracing darker characters of late since starring for seven seasons on The Practice, ”I think I found my niche, walking the line between good and bad.”

While the hostage takers will learn more secrets about the Sanders family, viewers will get glimpses into the lives of the criminals — including Duncan’s hospital-bound wife, who has something to do with his kidnapping mission. ”As we start to peel back more of the onion and reveal more about Duncan’s motives, it will change how Ellen feels about Duncan,” teases Nachmanoff. The latter half of the season will focus more on the conspiracy around assassinating the president. Nachmanoff promises to ”close” the story by the end of the first season and then ”reset” for season 2 — sorry, he won’t offer any more details than that — but his biggest dream is that Hostages marks a turning point for a network that typically plays it safe: ”I hope we change the face of CBS.” Somewhere, the cast of NCIS just felt a chill.