'Kidnapped' Holds Viewers for Ransom

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!"

At least that's an errant thought inspired by "Jericho," the new season's gloomiest and doomiest drama.

In the series premiere tonight on CBS, America suffers the apocalyptic horror of a nuclear attack. And that's just for starters.

Where will the show's writers go from there? From the obliteration of Denver and other cities apparently vaporized but not shown? That's a good question for "Jericho's" executive producer, Jon Turteltaub, who reassured a reporter for Entertainment Weekly: "The show is not all doom and gloom where everybody gets boils under their skin and dies." Well, thank heaven. Nobody likes a nuclear holocaust without a little fun in it.

The title refers to a relatively small town in Kansas, one so quaintly pretty and serene that it looks like an ad for Hallmark. In the pilot, a young and sullen prodigal son returns to Jericho just in time to see the big awful mushroom clouds forming in the distant sky. Eventually, the townsfolk realize that Denver has disappeared, and all hell begins to break loose.

Well, not quite all hell. A mob overruns a gas station, basically. One assumes the rest of hell is being saved for serialized chapters to come.

CBS, meanwhile, must have its own Chicken Little on staff, perhaps as a consultant, running around the Television City parking lot in Los Angeles and shouting "You've got to get 'Lost'! You've got to get 'Lost!' " Meaning not "Get out of town before somebody drops a house on you," but rather "Develop a show like 'Lost,' ABC's big, mysterious hit about people marooned an island after their plane crashes."

The people in "Jericho" are marooned in -- what else? -- Jericho after a whole city crashes.

And it appears the same sorts of plot threads will be unraveled, the same kinds of murky back-stories told, and similar conflicts evolve among the various characters as Jericho faces dire prospects just over the horizon.

Skeet Ulrich plays the prodigal figure, a guy named Nick who left town under a cloud of his own -- not a nuclear cloud, of course -- and has returned after four years just in time to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a little girl trapped in a school bus. There's another bus to worry about: one formerly filled with prison inmates, all now running loose because their bus tumbled into a ravine.

Ulrich is so muttery and mopey in the lead role that the show seems gloomy even during the few minutes before the mushroom clouds form. But more damaging to "Jericho" is the fact that it's really a Cold War drama airing years after the Cold War ended. Perhaps it will evolve that al-Qaeda or the Iranians or North Koreans or -- the possibilities are too numerous -- get hold of nuclear weapons and go berserk, making the show seem more contemporary, but obviously we'll have to "tune in next week," or for weeks after that, to find out what's going on.

The drama seems dated in other ways -- among them, tiny details like a strange scarcity of cellphones in town. This is a writer's convenience; if people in Jericho, like everywhere else, had cellphones, then someone could have called the cops to tell them about the imperiled school bus. Instead, footage is eaten up by townsfolk traipsing around in search of the vehicle.

It might sound callous to say that "Jericho" has managed to make nuclear war look boring, but there you have it. Or don't have it, should you choose the seemingly sane course of steering clear.

As for comic relief, there is some, but it might be unintentional -- as when Gerald McRaney, as the town's nutball of a mayor, tries to calm the population by saying, "One explosion does not make an attack," even with the nuclear clouds clearly visible in the distance. That's not looking on the bright side. That's being a blithering idiot.

"Jericho" could use considerably less blither and considerably more believability.

Kidnapped (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4; Jericho (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 9.

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