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?