'Ransom': TV Review

Steve Wilkie/eOne
Luke Roberts of 'Ransom'
Unlikely to revolutionize Saturday TV viewership.

CBS' new crisis management drama is very Canadian and not very memorable.

Getting an unlikely series premiere on Jan. 1 and then airing in an even more unlikely Saturday primetime slot, the drama Ransom isn't the worst new show CBS has premiered in the past 12 months. Heck, it may not be one of the 10 worst new shows the network has premiered in the past 12 months. But whereas most of those critical duds boasted big stars or promising brand names, or at least comfortable time periods to help hook viewers, Ransom is being thrown out there to cause "What the heck is this show and why is it on CBS during the regular broadcasting season?" confusion. After watching the pilot, Ransom remains inexplicable — and mediocre.

Actually, maybe CBS isn't hoping to cause confusion, but rather to capitalize on confusion on as many as three fronts.

The network likes to make shows using familiar titles like Rush Hour or The Odd Couple or MacGyver or Training Day. It's baked into CBS' DNA at this point and it's probably baked into CBS' viewer expectations. Ransom was the title of a successful movie back in the day and it wouldn't be at all surprising for the net to have done a movie based on it. Despite having a hostage-negotiating backdrop, though, CBS' Ransom has nothing to do with the Mel Gibson movie in which he was very eager to get his son back.

Ransom also isn't Hunted, which CBS has been promoting more aggressively this fall. But Ransom is executive produced by Frank Spotnitz, who once created a Cinemax drama named Hunted, which isn't the Hunted that CBS is premiering in January.

And although you may not know Ransom leading man Luke Roberts, you might be distracted by his resemblance, from certain angles, to Dylan McDermott, who played an FBI agent who takes a family hostage in the CBS drama Hostages, which has no tie to the hostage negotiating in Ransom.

All clear now?

These are the kinds of things that consciously puzzle TV critics, but could perhaps subconsciously lure viewers into thinking that Ransom's presence on CBS makes sense.

In actuality, Ransom was created by David Vainola and based on real-life crisis negotiator Laurent Combalbert and his partner Marwan Mery. Roberts plays Eric Beaumont, head of Crisis Resolution, a company that gets called in on cases around the world, or at least in Montreal and Denver (both played by Toronto, I believe), leaving former cop Zara Hallam (Nazneen Contractor) to deal with local law enforcement, while Oliver Yates (Brandon Jay McLaren) spouts things about psychology. Offering the opportunity for exposition is new girl Maxine Carlson (Sarah Greene), obsessed with these kinds of negotiations and harboring a secret that really isn't interesting, but still gets held to the end of the pilot like the drama depends on it.

Ransom is part of a wave of shows about private contractors doing things TV viewers have generally associated with official agencies, whether it's forensic pathology (Rosewood) or general police work (Fox's upcoming APB). It's a good hook for writers because if these contractors aren't limited by jurisdiction, they can be summoned in for only the twistiest, most intriguing cases. Unfortunately, neither of the two cases in the pilot is juicy enough to seem to require this notoriously brilliant gang of negotiators, and nothing Crisis Resolution does to defuse situations in the pilot is clever or exciting enough to justify why they're considered notoriously brilliant.

An opening hostage negotiation in a church relies too heavily on luck to be exciting and the main case is an all-too-standard missing child scenario with all-too-generic Euro-villains. Bland procedural elements are hardly damning for a CBS show. They're actually the network's bread-and-butter, but the swift establishing of a compelling team is essential if you're going to make viewers stick with a CSI or NCIS investigation. Greene's Maxine is there as a point-of-entry character, but the way she keeps inserting herself into situations when she's told to leave is more annoying and less charming than the writers imagine, and nothing she adds is perceptive enough to explain why she keeps being tolerated, other than the twist at the end. Similarly, if McLaren's Oliver and Contractor's Zara are going to be accepted as best-of-the-best, they need to immediately illustrate their value, and they don't. 

Nowhere is the gap between the way people onscreen receive the character and the way audiences are likely to receive the character bigger than with Roberts' Eric, introduced in a swooping profile close-up that director Richard Lewis must think is cool, but actually made me laugh because Roberts just isn't a big enough star to get that treatment (nor is he charismatic or dynamic enough to instantly become that kind of star). Roberts is the sort of handsome, fairly assertive British actor who gets asked to struggle through American accents for network TV shows because casting directors think they've run out of American alphas. Since Ransom is actually a Canadian production and the character is probably meant to be Canadian, this is almost an audition for Roberts to someday get to play a regionally non-specific American fighting regionally non-specific American crimes.

X-Files and Man in the High Castle veteran Spotnitz has spent recent years carving out a niche on international co-productions that film abroad and often appear on our shores somewhat surprisingly with recognizable casts (Medici: Masters of Florence) or recognizable brands (Transporter: The Series) and sometimes unexpected technical excellence (Strike Back). The Ransom pilot has production values on the low end of that Spotnitz spectrum. No real action or suspense are generated and the location work — especially the faking of Denver — is laughably generic, though Lewis delivers one sequence, a money drop in the rain at a remote gas station, that at least looks good. Still, I never shook the feeling that I was watching something that, from cast to the overall aesthetic, we weren't meant to see on American network TV, except for maybe in the summer when [better] Canadian productions like Flashpoint and Rookie Blue have thrived.

Maybe the lesson of Ransom is that summer has now become too valuable, as broadcasting real estate goes, to fill with cheap-o procedurals, but in our Peak TV moment, the last horizon untapped for its scripted programming potential is Saturday. Just as Roberts may be acting here for the chance to someday star in a more visible network show, Ransom may be the Canadian procedural canary in the Saturday night coal mine. That distinction, plus being a much better show than Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, probably isn't reason enough to watch Ransom, but at least now you know what it is.

Cast: Luke Roberts, Sarah Greene, Brandon Jay McLaren, Nazneen Contractor
Creator: David Vainola
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (CBS); airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. starting Jan. 7