Tom Shales, Style Columnist

'Kidnapped' Holds Viewers for Ransom

Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton in
Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton in "Kidnapped": Not your Ordinary People. (By Mitchell Haaseth -- Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Sometimes, the world doesn't make sense," says a philosophical bodyguard named Virgil in tonight's premiere of NBC's "Kidnapped." Virgil has not only made the understatement of the week, but he's also helped set the tone for this superior, high-tension serialized drama about the proverbial "parent's worst nightmare" -- and how it affects not just the parents but everyone involved.

Making the strongest impression among those in an unusually sturdy cast is Jeremy Sisto, an intense young actor whose parts have ranged from the title role in the CBS miniseries "Jesus" to the disturbed boyfriend in HBO's "Six Feet Under" to a man with breasts (a transsexual in progress) in an obscure bit of weirdness called "The Crew."

Here, Sisto's a man known simply as Knapp, a roguish but no-nonsense freelance operative whose specialty is helping families recover kidnap victims -- alive.

"All I care about is retrieval; everything else is distraction," he tells the indefatigable Dana Delany and aging Timothy Hutton, who play Ellie and Conrad Cain, well-to-do Upper-East-Siders. Their brainy 15-year-old son, Leopold (Will Denton), is nabbed in a maliciously well-planned, recklessly violent operation that bodyguard Virgil (played by the formidable Mykelti Williamson) comes within heartbreaking seconds of preventing.

Why does a teenage schoolboy have a bodyguard in the first place? That's one of many tantalizing questions raised in the premiere, the abduction itself reverberating with an uncountable number of obvious and incipient complications -- motive, culpability and the possible involvement even of seeming "good guys."

Writer and executive producer Jason Smilovic, ably abetted by director Michael Dinner, crams the premiere with so many provocative complications that even a doubting Thomas can see how a drama about a single kidnapping -- wrapped up handily in such self-contained, two-hour movies as "Ransom" -- could sustain viewer interest over an entire season.

In the second installment, for instance, a Hannibal Lecter-like character is introduced. He's an unsavory source of possible use to Knapp, along with a new and scary bodyguard named Jimbo, who moves into the Cains' plush house. The kidnappers demand $20 million in untraceable, negotiable bearer bonds -- a term so familiar from so many films that one has to wonder: If whoever prints up those darn "untraceable, negotiable bearer bonds" just stopped making them, mightn't the number of robberies and kidnappings decline? Oh, probably not.

The series doesn't do much to help the ailing image of the FBI; it's ailing, at least, in movies and TV shows like this one. Casting Delroy Lindo as a top agent who comes out of retirement because of a vested interest in the case does somewhat help the image of the agency.

Knapp finds the FBI guys less a hindrance, going so far as to punch one of them in the gut after a bungled rescue attempt and telling the agent, "What you can't seem to understand is, you're the only ones playing by the rules." Agents naively imagine that they're dealing with nice, respectable kidnappers who'll keep their word and honor agreements.

Would "Kidnapped" be more gripping if the victim's family weren't so outrageously wealthy? Probably not, and credibility would suffer. Middle-class families aren't likely to have stacks of those bearer bonds lying around, for one thing, and a threat to the safety of a child is a subject that crosses all boundaries, socioeconomic being perhaps the least of them.

"Kidnapped" isn't the show to watch if you want your mind taken off your troubles (unless other people's troubles have a therapeutic effect). It reflects a trend toward the grim and even ghoulish in new fall dramas. But for what it is, it's an extremely accomplished piece of work -- unsettling in ways that few suspense thrillers manage to be.


Chicken Little, sources say, might have been misquoted. Or taken out of context. When Little said, "The sky is falling," he could have meant, "Something awful is falling out of the sky!"

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