Crisis, NBC’s New Hostage Drama, Stalls Between Self-Seriousness and Camp Transcendence

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March 14 2014 10:57 AM

Camp Crisis

NBC’s absurd new hostage drama could actually use a little more crazy. 

Gillian Anderson and Rachael Taylor in Crisis.
From left, Gillian Anderson and Rachael Taylor star in Crisis, a show less serious than its cast.

Sometimes the only way to save a stupid TV show is to make it more stupid. This, anyway, is my note to the creators of Crisis, NBC’s new “a busload of important high school students get taken hostage” drama that begins Sunday night. Crisis is pretty stupid—as in, an-all-knowing-mastermind-who-is-probably-being-framed-by-the-U.S.-government-has-a-handwritten-notebook-that-predicts-exactly-what-top-secret-drone-technology-will-be-deployed-to-find-the-kids-and-that-also-explains-exactly-how-to-disable-said-drone stupid—but not quite idiotic enough to be good fun. As is, Crisis sits smack in between a show like CBS’s Hostages (which presumably took Crisis’ preferred title), another limited series with a high-octane plot that was so self-serious and faux intense as to be unbearably pretentious, and NBC’s big hit The Blacklist, a straight-faced show in on the joke of itself, as demonstrated every week by James Spader’s high-camp performance. Crisis needs to lean more Blacklist: If you’re going to be dumb, at least be a good time about it.

The essential silliness of Crisis is on display almost immediately. The bus makes its way from D.C. to New York City for a field trip, carrying the sons and daughters of the world’s elite—the daughter of an all-powerful Fortune 500 company CEO, the son of the Pakistani ambassador, the son of the president of the United States of America, etc., etc.—when it enters an enormous cellphone dead zone on a one-lane back road. You know, exactly the sort of thoroughfare the route from D.C. to NYC is absolutely riddled with. Masked men hold up the bus, ferry the kids into a truck, and then into a mansion, where they remain hidden from everyone. The hostage-taker is, inevitably, a wronged genius likely operating under righteous duress, who is thousands of steps ahead of the government, and begins meticulously using the high-end parents to carry out parts of his grander, mysterious scheme.   

Among the parents are Gillian Anderson, playing the head of that Fortune 500 company, the kind of woman who lands her helicopter anywhere she damn pleases, and Dermot Mulroney, a seemingly sad-sack divorced dad whose daughter totally ignores him and who gets kidnapped with the kids. Filling out the ensemble is our POV character, a female FBI agent (Rachael Taylor) who also happens to be Anderson character’s sister (they don’t talk), and a newbie Secret Service agent (the likeable Lance Gross) who escaped the initial kidnapping, as well as a house full of teenagers, all played by blandly indistinguishable actors in their 20s, but whose love lives we will soon be asked to care about. (Many of them are referred to on IMDb as “core teens.”)

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The first episodes of Crisis are in the business of building a mystery, which is the easy part. Proving that the mystery wasn’t constructed out of duct tape, rubber-band connections, and wishful thinking is harder. Based on the evidence—that whatever is going down involves a secret government program, black sites in D.C., sick soldiers, illegitimate children, something called Operation Lennox, and everybody always doing the worst possible thing, which is exactly what the bad guy predicted they would do—it seems clear there are a lot of empty duct tape rolls lying around the Crisis writers room.

And yet, there is a way to take something as silly as all of this and make it fun. Crisis feels like one of the first real stepmonsters of Scandal, a show that also churns through implausible, high-wire plot, but has what Crisis does not: good performances, a sense of humor, a point of view, a story to tell about the corrupting influence of power. Crisis just has the crazy plot part, and not one actor willing to go all James Spader on the material, someone to reassure us that what we’re watching is a goofy, cartoonish, absurd show that might be a kicky ride for a season or two. The cast heavyweights, Anderson and Mulroney, are both default realists. Anderson can do supercilious and intimidating with the best of them, as her recent, great work in The Fall demonstrated, but she is not a scenery chewer: She commands by getting quiet. And less is not what Crisis needs, but more. When you have a plot that is the equivalent of fluorescent green, you aren’t going to distract us from its ludicrous garishness with anything other than a dripping hot pink.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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