When I slipped in the preview DVD to watch the opening episodes of NBC's new drama series Crisis, which premieres Sunday, I have to admit I wasn't expecting much. Oh, there was some anticipation in seeing Gillian Anderson of The X-Files in a series lead again; but I wasn't sure whether we'd be getting the demand-your-attention actress from such marvelous British imports as Great Expectations and Bleak House, or the underused supporting actress from NBC's Hannibal.
As for the rest of it, the idea of a broadcast network trying another extended, single-plot, season-long crime story — well, even in very recent memory, such programs as CBS's Hostages and Fox's The Following have been major disappointments on that front, and wasted some very good actors, like Toni Collette and Kevin Bacon, in the process.
But Crisis pleasantly surprised me. It's about a busload of high school kids — children of the very powerful, including the president, in Washington, D.C. — whose field trip to New York gets detoured by kidnappers who grab the kids and use them as leverage to get their parents to do their bidding.
I know, this sounds so much like Hostages, it could almost be a rerun — except, this time around, the characters are painted with more depth and drama, and surprises are a lot more plentiful. Crisis starts out almost like a season of 24, but without the ticking clock and without Jack Bauer.
Instead, we have Marcus Finley, a Secret Service agent who's one of the victims of the ambush. He's determined to find and rescue the kids, and so is Susie Dunn, an FBI agent who gets assigned to the high-profile case because her sister, played by Gillian Anderson, is one of the parents. But the sisters haven't spoken in years, and it's obvious when they reunite for an initial interrogation that theirs is a complicated relationship.
Complicated relationships are all over this Crisis series. Dermot Mulroney plays the father of one of the kidnapped kids who was on the bus as a chaperone. Before the bus was taken over, his daughter didn't want to even acknowledge his presence — but now that they're all held hostage, things are different. And what makes Crisis such an above-average entry in this genre is that it constantly surprises you. By the end of the first hour alone, you'll be going on a much different TV trip than you expected. That's rare.
Crisis was created by Rand Ravich, who turns out to be the guy behind a previous NBC series, Life, which I thought never got the acclaim or viewers it deserved. That was a drama series about a wrongly imprisoned cop who was freed after serving a dozen years of a life sentence. The cop was played, so impressively, by Damian Lewis, who went on to star in Showtime's Homeland. I expect similarly good writing, and acting, from Crisis. The first two hours deliver on that promise, and the fact that Crisis is envisioned as a self-contained, 13-episode series makes it even more intriguing.
Crisis may wind up being only half as long as a season of 24, but it also may wind up being just as intense — and just as good.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.