Hostages' Quite Finite Finale Raises the Question: Should TV's 'Limited' Series Be Exactly That?

Hostages Finale SpoilersWhen all is said and done, CBS’ Hostages may not have held captive the largest audience, but its true success may be in demonstrating what a limited series can and should be, as its final two hours unspool tonight at 9/8c.

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Announced last May as a “15-episode thriller” (though always a candidate for renewal, presumably with a different cast/premise), Hostages followed Dr. Ellen Sanders (played by Toni Collette) as rogue FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) pressured her to kill the President of the United States in surgery — lest her husband and kids be snuffed.

When last we tuned in, Duncan — himself coerced into servitude, in the name of saving his ailing wife’s life — and the Sanders family were all on board with a quite different plan, one which will allow President Kincaid to live yet keeps Ellen & Co. out of harm’s way while also getting Duncan’s wife the bone marrow she needs for a transplant. Still, there are “wild cards” in play, including henchwoman Sandrine (who was set to take out cohorts Duncan, Kramer and Archer, to protect her own young son), the highly ambitious Colonel Blair and First Sister-in-Law Vanessa.

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Having screened the final two hours, I can assure anyone who’s afraid of coming out of this with frustrating loose ends that there basically are none — which is precisely in keeping with what executive producer Rick Eid told TVLine in mid-November: “We hope that the last episode will feel like the final chapter of a 15-chapter novel.”

Tonight’s first hour spends its time arranging a last few chess pieces and altering some allegiances (for better and for worse), then ends with a wrinkle that threatens to waylay the Sanders family’s escape. The closing hour — especially the second and third acts — better delivers on the series’ “thriller” aspect, as Ellen heads into the fateful surgery after an alarming run-in with the First Lady (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and with conflicting agendas noisily swirling around her. Clockwork-like precision is needed to pull this off, with many mindful eyes watching — will the good doctor hit a final snag?

Throughout the two-hour finale, we’ll get an indication that regardless of the president’s fate and whether Duncan comes through on his promises, it won’t necessarily be “happily ever after” for marrieds Ellen and Brian; Vanessa (Joanne Kelly) and Blair (Brian White) each, yet separately, will find themselves on the business end of Duncan’s gun; the Sanders’ daughter Morgan makes a clever bid to dodge death; a main character does (though needlessly) die; and there’s even time made for a little sweet romance.

But going back to Eid’s comparison of this to a novel’s final chapter: Is that how all such “limited series” should be unwaveringly structured, come Hell or high ratings? Because while Hostages never quite set the Nielsens on fire (it bowed to 7.4 million viewers and a 1.8 rating, then settled around 5 mil/1.2), it always knew what it was and where it was heading. Even in great success, I can’t imagine there was a Plan B that would (or should) keep this set of characters moving forward into a second storyline. Rather, any possible (if unlikely) Season 2 would probably follow the American Horror Story model, bringing on an all-new new cast/crisis.

Compare that to CBS’ own previous go at a “limited” series, last summer’s Under the Dome, which never seemed to have the same sense of “end game.” And perhaps because of its boffo debut (13.5 million viewers, albeit opposite far less robust competition than ABC stalwart Castle and NBC’s buzzy Blacklist), it was robbed of offering palpable closure, as Hostages does tonight. Instead, viewers of the summertime hit were left with several characters they’d grown weary of and, well, a different-colored dome to ponder.

Which is not to say “event series” (as marketing departments oft like to dub them) can never have legs. Think back to USA Network’s Political Animals, which like Hostages lured a quality cast with the promise of a shorter-term commitment. But if television is hot to re-embrace the miniseries model — CBS itself has the Halle Berry-fronted Extant coming this summer, Fox has both M. Night Shyamalan’s Wayward Pines and 24: Live Another Day on the horizon, and NBC’s Crossbones might finally set sail — should, more often than not, a “limited” series be that and only that, its network’s long game be damned?

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58 Comments
  1. Gilded Lady says:

    They should. Another example of a “limited” series that wasn’t – Heroes. By keeping it around longer than intended that show wound up becoming a shadow of its former self.

    Viewers are leaving networks over quality. If they demonstrate they can make a commitment to quality over quantity, then maybe they cam begin to staunch the bleeding.

    • Tim says:

      The right show can live for more than one season/story. 24 is a good example of that. As long as each season has its closure, there are two ways to continue. First, continue with the same characters (or at least the primary ones) if doing so makes sense and the result is a new story line, not some “it was all just a dream” or other gimmick to undo what was done in the previous season just to drag on the series.

      The second option is to continue with the concept, but execute a whole new story with new characters. Done right, either option can make what is initially a limited run series into a longer term success.

  2. Ginger says:

    I love the idea of a second season a la American Horror Story, but I am so happy that this season and storyline are ending with no loose ends.
    When speaking about Under the Dome, that was a summer show…I tuned in to it’s mediocrity solely because there was little else on television, and that is more than half of the reason for its good ratings. From October-April however, there’s way too much competition and UtD would never have made it in that swing.

  3. Daniel says:

    Thanks, Matt, for shining light on a great series! Regarding, your question , I think this is the right way to do it. While I am sad to see it go, the timing feels about right.
    I think Under the Dome was never meant as a limited series. The producers said they had shot the cliffhanger ending before the renewal came in.
    Looking forward to NCB’s upcoming Crisis, BTW. I hope that will also remain a limited series!

  4. Mark says:

    Right on target. The old model for serial dramas works less and less every year, and the list of once-great fare that ends up jumping the shark and moving from must-see to unwatchable is quite long. Shorter seasons and a pre-thought-out endgame would improve quality for a LOT of the current fare these days. The BBC has this one very right: Series with *short* seasons (sometimes with as few as 3 episodes) that keep the quality and art of storytelling high.

    I’m a tv addict with a DVR bursting at the seems. When my eyes rolls, the season pass gets cancelled and I don’t look back.

  5. Amy says:

    I love the idea of limited series tbh its so nice to get a solid ending to a show instead of a straight up cancellation where you never see what happens….still bitter about the playboy club tbh LOL! Give me 10 good episodes with a great ending and i’m happy.

  6. Try Again says:

    Just look at the ratings , the answer is NO.
    2014 : death of “limited” series. They all flop.

    • James says:

      Hatfields and McCoys is also a limited/miniseries. I say, bring them into the fold!

    • ginny says:

      The ratings were only low because it was up against the phenominal Blacklist.
      If they put Hostages on another night/time, I think it would have done better.
      Saying that, I LOVED IT, and hate to see it end!

      • I loved Hostages also and hate to see it end. When you get a good one stick with it and try to have it on another time slot. The cast was wonderful and I would like to see McDermott and the actress that played the Dr. Ellen was very good at the rolls they played. Please consider bringing it back. I think it has possibilities of being a winner.

  7. TL says:

    I’m all for it! TOP OF THE LAKE was awesome! And I don’t feel the need to keep watching it, just ready for the next great one. I dig that model…

  8. Jane says:

    I’d like to see them go back and try what NBC did a long time ago with the Mystery Movie (?) series. One week would be McMillan & Wife, the next Columbo and then McCloud. That way they spread the series out but didn’t have them take the type of long breaks that they do on USA.

    • c.villani says:

      I’m all for the early 70s-mid 70’s format of Columbo, McMillan & Wife and McCloud. You had
      a choice of watching only your favorite or all three. Even though all three had a detective
      type appeal they were fun, fresh and exciting.

  9. LizJ says:

    I wish there were MORE limited-run series on American Broadcast Network TV. I lke watching stories with a beginning, middle and end that occurs in less than 20 epsiodes. Considering that view, I guess its no surprise that most of my “tv” viewing these days, with the exception of a few shows like Sleepy Hollow, is shows originating from other countries, through internet streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, Viki, and DramaFever.

    Limited run series concepts seem to work very well in a lot of other countries, whether it’s the typical Asian (Korea, Twain, Japan, China) “mini-series” of about 16 to 24 episodes or the UK’s “Sherlock” with only three episodes a year..

    I just think the American public hasn’t gotten used to this concept yet.Except, perhaps those who are fans of cable dramas, where the trend has been picking up steam for a little while.

  10. Nichole says:

    Limited series are a great idea, Political Animals worked because it both came to a conclusion of that part of the story of the peoples lives while also leaving the possibility open that another story arc could be done. It all depends on the material, Hostages has no where to go after this season, so conclusion is all there is for it, which is satisfying if done properly.
    I’m all for short 6-8 ep seasons like they have in the UK, where production values then go up and quality actors are enticed into TV, just look at Sherlock, sure you only get 3 ep’s every year or so, but each on is like a mini movie and the set ends in a way that if that was it, it would be okay. (loved the 1st new one this year!!!)
    Even the cable network model would be great, which is where some free to air seem to have headed year or so, in having a 13 ep run, see what it goes like, then have it come back for another 13 run a year later. This actually would work even better for free to air TV, less risk then full year orders, better production values and more variety on TV, win win from a viewer point of view!!

  11. Michelle says:

    It’s sort of a double edged sword. You get one season and then it’s over? I enjoy the characters on the shows I watch. I don’t only want one season. I would rather have shorter seasons with less episodes than series meant to only be flash in the pans.

  12. Ange says:

    This is how all summer/mid-series shows should be setup to avoid having people invest in characters when shows may not make it to a full season.

  13. Ally Oop says:

    No. If I invest my time in getting to know characters I like to see them in the long term. That’s why I prefer tv series to movies or miniseries. I’d rather shorter seasons across a few years. Sleepy Hollow, for example, did good with 13 episodes. I wish Reign would have stuck to it’s 13 a season as I’m wondering how the writers can sustain the story throughout 22 episodes.

    • tp says:

      I just happened to catch the last 20 minutes of Reign the other night. It sucked me in. I think I might have to go back and watch the other episodes. I’m a sucker for stuff like that. Although I could never get into Game of Thrones…go figure. lol,

  14. popky says:

    Love the idea of the limited series. I cannot wait for Fox’s Gracepoint.

  15. Stylish says:

    I’m still not buying that this show wraps up COMPLETELY! I mean, are we really going to see whether or not the president is killed or not? And what about the consequences of whatever happens. I think there’s plenty of story left to tell in the aftermath of all this.

  16. Pat says:

    So much better when they have an end game, then you aren’t left with cliffhanger endings if they do bad in the ratings. And if they do great in the ratings, then just go the horror story route and recast for a second season. The story should be complete, network goals be damned.

    Although I can 99.9999% guarantee 24 will be one that won’t be limited, they’ll bring it back for another 12. But that always did a good job of tying things up for the season anyway, leaving a few open ended questions, ignoring season 6.

    The likes of say Prison Break would have greatly been improved by a limited run, or Heroes, etc. Yeah big ratings mean big money, but if the networks just beat them into the ground, instead of taking that money they made and making other limited series, then they just piss everyone off and people will continue to just watch mindless reality tv junk or NCIS spinoff #50. Never going to happen though. Greed will win out every time.

  17. Just one thing says:

    Short answer: Yes. If they’re going to embrace (hopefully) high-quality storytelling on a cable-style time-table, they need to let it breathe properly and then be willing to reboot it for another season if the opportunity arises. American Horror Story is the best example of that.

  18. Saabgirlatx says:

    Yes I think limited series can work, the trick being when is the best time to schedule them. Hostages was great, but it kept being compared to and probably passed over by the Blacklist. Castle has a loyal following as well taking away similar viewers. Networks keep thinking they are clever by airing all of the strong shows at the same time but someone suffers. Average dvr’s can typically only record two shows at a time so choices have to be made. Hostages would have been perfect for the summer or *gasp* Saturday night.

    • Stylish says:

      I have no idea how people found it in themselves to compare Hostages to The Blacklist. They are as different as night and day. I personally thought Hostages was better acted and better written than The Blacklist, but that’s just me. Obviously, The Blacklist had the highest number of fans though.

      • Saabgirlatx says:

        Compare may not have been the best word…but in the beginning I think they did. Both shows were suspenseful dramas airing back to back. I liked Hostages better myself although I will still probably watch blacklist when I can.

      • Rich Abey says:

        Wow..we really must be living in separate Universes. Hostages was better acted and written than The Blacklist? You kidding me?
        Hello…almost every TV Critic out there was praising James Spader’s charismatic & sometimes emotional portrayal as Red. The rest of the cast were excellent, and most important of all the guest stars portraying the ‘criminals of the week’ in Red’s list..each and every one of them were outstanding!
        Better Writing? Humour, snappy witty remarks, you name it. All this despite being a pretty serious crime show.
        In short, Raymond Reddington was one of the best written & acted characters on TV in a long time. Let alone the show itself.

        • Stylish says:

          The Blacklist is a crappy cartoon relying on over-the-top theatrics to drive a so-called narrative. I’m not surprised that it’s received lots of love though. As far as TV critics are concerned? Pfft!

    • Rich Abey says:

      Much of the blame for the bland ratings that Hostages managed to garner should indeed go towards the scheduling. Here I present a small number crunch: You want to introduce a new drama series, you go put it right bam on time when the following crime shows air:
      – Castle (probably the show with the least ratings variation across a season on all networks…while it has maintained on average 10-12 million live viewers across 5+ seasons)
      – Blacklist (THE hottest new show of 2013, which also had been averaging 12 million viewers in its first 3 episodes before Hostages premiered). On hindsight though they could be forgiven as the premier date must have been fixed before Blacklist started firing up, but still it was a gamble to go against another new crime show…especially one spearheaded by non other the charismatic Mr. James Spader himself!

  19. RichieS says:

    A premise I would like to see made into a limited run series…take Sandrine from Hostages, Nikita, Ming Na from Agents of SHIELD, and Shado from Arrow and make them a new kickass version of Charlie’s Angels. It would have to be limited-run because no opponent could last longer than a few eps !

  20. GeoDiva says:

    I loved the mini-series from the 70’s and 80’s, so I am all on-board with a limit 10-15 episode run series. You will attract better writers who don’t want to get stuck in a 5 year cycle of trying to stretch a story and as viewers we don’t get yanked when they cancel something out from under us. Make the commitment and let the story take us.

  21. Sara says:

    I love the limited run series idea. It keeps a really solid idea from devolving into the mess of the 22 episode season run with like 10 filler episodes that don’t really push the plot forward (and therefore causes viewers to leave from boredom) and it gives us a solid conclusion. One of my greatest pet peeves is becoming enamored with a series that has a 50-50 (at best) chance of coming back and producers rolling the dice that they will get picked up, have a ridiculous cliffhanger and then BOOM, cancelled.
    I am glad that the producers of this great show stuck with the limited run tactic. I loved this show and can’t wait to see how it ends!

    • tp says:

      The first show I remember getting cancelled that ended on a cliffhanger was John Doe. It was the first show I cared about getting cancelled. It happens so often now, I’m more surprised when a show is renewed.

  22. Stylish says:

    Unless these two episodes end with the audience learning whether or not any of these people are held accountable for this plot, I don’t know how it can be considered a wrap-up. There was a plot to kill the president of the United States in addition to the fact that several people were murdered along the way in this plot. Does Duncan and his crew get arrested? What happens to Dr. Sanders in all of this? Are Colonel Blair and Vanessa held accountable for their actions in this murderous plot?

  23. Ashok says:

    I’d have nothing against “limited series”. But I’d prefer to just have another GREAT normal television show like Breaking Bad.

  24. charlotte says:

    I think limited series is a great idea but I believe shorter seasons would benefit shows more a la Luther, Sherlock, Sleepy Hollow, etc. The typical 22-24 episode season makes it impossible for every episode to have the same type of impact on the storyline – there will inevitably be filler episodes. I think Revenge is a classic example of that.

  25. exfromtheleft says:

    their tv landscape is structured differently but the Britts do that all the time to great effect

  26. rita says:

    More Hostages,please!

  27. BOBO says:

    Bravo!!!!! to CBS for finally ending a show nicely… That’s what l want to see, the other networks could take a lesson from u.I’am a fan again….

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  29. Bob says:

    The reason limited series won’t work for American TV is simple – $$$$. TV executives get greedy if the series is a hit and force the producers to come up with subsequent seasons, even if it doesn’t make sense. Look at ‘Under the Dome’. Would have been fantastic last summer as a limited series. Once they decided to do a second season, suddenly the story started getting dragged out, nothing ever came to a resolution, etc., etc. If they do the same thing this summer in hopes of getting to season 3, they’ll probably lose a lot of viewers.

  30. Sandra Slack says:

    I thought Hostages ended very well just the way it did.
    What happened to NCIS Los Angeles? Did it go to another channel & time?

    • Ruth says:

      Think that it will be back on Tuesday at 9 next week. I believe Intelligence will take Hostages time slot on it’s second episode.

  31. Patrick Hess says:

    Like a good novel they could have a sequel following the main characters but not a new season of the same story line. Maybe how Duncan gets out of prison, how the other characters help him…..

  32. Ruth says:

    I am satisfied with the ending of Hostges, however, I wouldn’t mind a second season, if it was done correctly. Wether it is with the same characters, or different ones. I heard that the Isreali version has been renewed for a secod season. They could almost do a spin-off with Sandrine and Kramer, how their life turns out. But I loved this series and the ending wa very satisfying. Bravo CBS.

  33. Mike Burke says:

    My wife and I watched every episode of “The Hostages” and we thought it was very entertaining. Every episode was suspenseful and kept us on the edge of our seats. Well done.

  34. Cherri Lynn says:

    Loved Hostages! Would love to see more with the same characters!

  35. Keith says:

    It has our family BUZZING!! We loved it and we got the best of both worlds…we tape it Blacklist AND Hostages, then we watch them on the crappy nights!! I couldn’t begin to say where it could go and even use the existing cast, but it was good twist and turns. Hope they keep it alive.

  36. Tom K says:

    My family watched all the episodes and loved it, we would love a second season

  37. Richard says:

    I love the limited one season shows. It keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat, also not waiting 8-12 months for season two.By then, I have lost interest and removed it from my DVR. I hope there are more one season shows like this. Crisis is another one, AWESOME