'Homeland' and 'Hostages' Producers Show Why TCA Sessions Matter -- If Done Right (Analysis)


Stars: Toni Collette, Dylan McDermott, Tate Donovan, Rhys Coiro, Billy Brown, Sandrine Holt, Mateus Ward, Quinn Shephard, James Naughton
Team: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, Omri Givon, Rotem Shamir, Rick Eid (showrunner), KristieAnne Reed, Alon Aranya

Hostages follows Ellen (Toni Collette), a Washington, D.C. surgeon who is thrown into a political conspiracy after being chosen to operate on the president of the United States. Her family is taken hostage, and it's her responsibility to save their lives. It is based on an Israeli format by Alon Aranya, Rotem Shamir and Chayim Sharir that was never produced.

Despite what might seem like a river of complaints, particularly on Twitter (ahem), spending nearly three weeks held hostage in a hotel for the Death March With Cocktails, aka the Television Critics Association press tour, has its decided advantages.

There is value in having access to and talking to executives in person, even if you already have the ability to call them (many people here from newspapers and online entities do not). There is value in marinating in most of the television you'll be seeing for the next six months (trends and patterns emerge, etc.). There is even value in listening to fellow critics who sometimes do not share your views of a particular show, because it's always nice to tell people they're wrong to their face. But far and away the best element is going to a session and looking for clues as to whether a certain show has some potential that's not evident in the pilot, or to hear a series creator explain and expand on the premise and where a show is going (equally telling is when they're coy about that, which confirms that they have no idea).

On Monday -- officially day six of TCA -- we had two panels that were the most anticipated in that latter regard.

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First, CBS was here with its fall offerings -- and my near-visceral disdain for its comedies was not mitigated by much of what the creators and producers said. On the other hand, the drama Hostages, which I thought was an excellent pilot but maybe not the kind of series that can hold up for a full season (meaning is this really a weekly series, or would it make a better movie?), was going to have a panel that might answer that question.

Later in the day, Showtime -- which is under the family umbrella along with The CW -- was here to talk about the third season of its prized drama Homeland. As someone who loved season one and complained rather relentlessly about the creative downturn in season two, I considered this the second most essential panel of the day.

So, what was to be learned from the revelations made at each? For starters, I realized that a whole bunch of other critics are not that impressed with Hostages, and -- as we are wont to do -- took delight in some Twitter mocking of those of us supporting it. When the panel finally took place, and the producers were appropriately forthcoming in an age when handlers might frown on that kind of honesty, it still wasn't enough for some people clinging to a preconceived notion. But I was far more encouraged than discouraged about what they revealed.

The panel included stars Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette, plus series creator, writer and executive producer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, producer and writer Rick Eid and powerhouse guiding forces and EPs Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman. The premise of the series is straightforward and bold: A surgeon (Collette) chosen to operate on the president has her family taken hostage by a group led by someone we've already witnessed as an FBI agent (McDermott). Their demand: Slip something to the president and kill him, and your family lives. In what at first appears a brash move, McDermott's character takes off his mask. As they all do. Instead of ensuring that they will kill the family now that they've seen the faces of the gunmen, McDermott essentially says hey, we're all in this together now. It's a secret that binds us.

Now, as you might guess, critics wanted to know how long this could drag on (season one is 15 episodes by design). Was this going to be an endless string of red herrings and implausible twists? Hasn't anyone learned from The Killing?

It was a lively session, and the producer thankfully opted not to be coy. "Our goal is not to point a bunch of guns we don’t fire," Eid said in regard to the red herrings and twists. Nachmanoff: "Look, all I can say is we have a complete arc and plan for the season, but as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Once we start shooting the show, some of those things are going to change and adjust. But as Rick said, our ideas are: We don’t pull any punches."

Nachmanoff then said something more reassuring: "We could give you a couple of little teases of things that are going to happen." And he did: "At some point in the next few episodes, the family is going to try and escape. And in the process, one of the central characters -- we won’t tell you who -- is going to get shot. You know, that will happen."

Added Eid: "And another character gets killed. You know, like Jeffrey said, we’re not pulling punches. There won’t be another delay tactic at the end of the season."

They said more as well. At TCA, honesty -- in a way that doesn't ruin the entire thing for viewers -- is important. Part of what we do for viewers at home is try to save them the precious time they have, to guide them away from both bad shows and good ideas that will not be executed well and will thus become frustrating time-wasters.

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Since we haven't seen beyond the pilot, it's impossible to say whether the producers kept their word. But it's clear they intend to. And since they clarified a confusing and possibly even dubious premise, it's far easier for me to pass along that you should definitely watch Hostages.

As for Homeland, most of the worry I had -- that the show was focusing on the Carrie and Brody love match at the expense of the terrorist angle that was so compelling and, in the process, was becoming 24 (not a good thing, in my book) -- was brushed away by the first two episodes, which were refreshingly grounded, beautifully acted and sharply written.

Plus, when pressed about the criticism of the past season, creator and writer Alex Gansa acknowledged it (many producers wouldn't) and went on, through the course of the session, to detail the direction of season three. Let's put it this way: With the evidence of the first two episodes, a cast that was upbeat and thoughtful about their roles and producers who seemed cognizant of not letting the show become some insipid soap opera, a lot of my faith was restored.

That doesn't mean the entire season will be great. But what those TCA sessions did -- for both Hostages and Homeland -- was to alleviate for me the immediate and harsh doubts that were likely to result in a "don't bother" verdict. Now? Set the DVR.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine