Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Late Review Of Kidnapped

I managed to screw up the taping of several shows that I wanted to see this week. Yeah, I use a VCR not a DVR (around here DVRs are only available if you pay for a high def cable box or use satellite, but that's a whole other story) so there's no high tech "season pass" for me. Anyway, I am really grateful that NBC decided to show the pilot episode of Kidnapped on Saturday night, because if they hadn't I might have missed one of the best shows that I've seen so far this season.

There are basically three ways to approach the first episode of a new series. You can dump the viewer into the story with virtually no preparation at all. That's what Aaron Sorkin did with The West Wing. You can spend the bulk of an episode setting up the premise of the series, although the result is a pilot episode that bears little or no resemblance to what people will see every week. That's what Sorkin did this year with Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Finally you can find a middle ground where a significant portion of the episode is given over to setting up the basic premise of the show with the remainder given over to settling into the regular flow of events. This seems to be the approach taken by the producers of Jericho. I don't have any problem waiting until the second episode to review a show like Studio 60, or even one like Jericho because of the way their pilots are structured, but when it comes to show that dump you right into the action, the pilot episode is often essential for grasping the events of the show, particularly one that is essentially a serial. Kidnapped is one of those shows.

Kidnapped opens almost as if it was an episode of Law & Order. In a few minutes we meet the Cain Family - the teenaged son Leopold, the younger daughter Alice, mother Ellie, and father Conrad. We meet the Cains in the morning as the present a happy appearance to a reporter from the New York Times. There seems to be a sort of undercurrent suggesting that perhaps things aren't as happy as they might seem to be. Also present is Virgil, who we have seen entering the building in what seems to be a daily occurrence. When Alice tries to introduce Virgil to the "girl from the Times" (as Conrad calls the reporter) her mother tells her in French "We don't talk about Virgil with guests." As we quickly discover, Virgil is Leopold's bodyguard. We soon learn that Leopold needs a bodyguard. The car in which Virgil, Leopold and another boy are being driven to the boys' exclusive private school they are stopped and the driver killed. Virgil shoots a man posing as a cop and then shoots up a garbage truck blocking their retreat before he himself is shot by a sniper on another building. The other boy is sent back to the Cain home with a note - "Don't call the police." All of this occurs in the first six minutes of the show and yet it can't be described as rushed. We get the information we need to know in order to set up the premise of the series and to give us a hint of how we should feel about these people.

We are soon introduced to the major characters of this show. As it happens, the Conrad Cain's lawyer, Roger, knows someone - or rather knows of someone - who can help. This is our introduction to Knapp who we see rescuing another kidnapping victim and killing the kidnappers to get to her. Knapp, and his associate Turner, have as their goal the return of the victim "intact" otherwise they don't get paid. That's part of why Knapp advises his clients not to contact the FBI; in his view the FBI's objectives are too diverse - the return of the victim, the identification and capture of the kidnappers and the recovery of the ransom. Unfortunately the Cains may not have a choice about bringing in the FBI. Agent Latimer King, who is on the verge of retiring, is contacted by Virgil's wife. She tells King that her husband is missing. After first asking Conrad Cain about Virgil's whereabouts, King eventually finds him in a hospital in Queens. It is from Virgil that King learns about Leopold's abduction. He surmises that Knapp is also involved, and in a nicely choreographed scene, talks to Knapp on the phone. Both men are lying about their locations until King and his FBI colleagues enter the Cain home and are standing face to face with Knapp.

It becomes clear almost immediately that King and Knapp both know and respect each other, and seemingly don't respect the lead FBI agent on the case. They're soon dealing with a ransom demand. The kidnappers call Conrad Cain and demand that he deliver $20 million in Bearer Bonds to a subway station in Brooklyn. This allows the FBI to "determine" the location that the call came from, an apartment in Brooklyn. While Knapp, Conrad Cain and King go to the drop point, the FBI's SWAT team prepares to take down the apartment as soon as the ransom is delivered. Told to proceed into the "local" tunnel to Coney island, Cain encounters a man to whom he is supposed to deliver the ransom - or at least so he thinks. When Knapp captures the man it turns out that he's a homeless man who has been given a hundred dollars to deliver a note. But it's too late. The FBI agent with the SWAT team sends his men in, not listening to King's claims that this was not the drop. It turns out badly - the apartment was rigged with explosives and when the SWAT team enters, the place blows up. At that moment Ellie Cain gets a call from the kidnapper: "You've just killed your son."

This recap of the first episode doesn't do it justice. There are several scenes involving the kidnappers including their apparent leader "Mr. Schroeder". Once the kidnapping takes place, Schroeder's associate ruthlessly goes about eliminating loose ends - specifically the fake cop and "Mr. Greene" the sniper who shot Virgil. But there are so many other great touches, like Ellie's line to Conrad when he says that the note tells them not to call the police: "I imagine the note always says not to call the police." It's said in such a matter of fact manner that it conveys Ellie's certainty that her husband is doing the wrong thing but that she'll let it go ... for now. There are all sorts of hints that there's something deeper going on, and not just in the kidnapping.

Inevitably there are going to be comparisons between this show and the Fox show Vanished. If the criteria for comparison is that the show is a serial about kidnapping (the Fall Preview edition of the Canadian TV Guide contains the following: Is the world really ready for two season-long kidnapping serials on the same network? - Vanished and Kidnapped both air on Global in Canada) then I don't think the comparison is valid. Vanished is heavily modeled on films like The DaVinci Code and National Treasure. The kidnapping of the Senator's wife in Vanished seems mainly intended to lead the FBI agents and the reporter into the depths of a massive conspiracy and the shadowy "super-organization" responsible for it. And while the Cain family and others in Kidnapped have more than their share of secrets and shadowy areas in their lives, the show's focus is on the kidnapping rather than on the as yet unknown motives for it. By any other criteria, Kidnapped comes out far ahead of Vanished.

The acting in Kidnapped is first rate, which shouldn't really surprise anyone given the talent that has been assembled for this series. Oscar winner Timothy Hutton plays Conrad Cain while Dana Delaney plays his wife Ellie. They have some scenes that portray the intermingled rage confusion and hopelessness of parents who have had a child kidnapped, and they pull them off in a manner that is letter perfect. Jeremy Sisto plays Knapp, and from the moment you first see him, you realize that he is a both a dangerous man and someone of greater depth than he might initially appear to have. There's an exchange that he has with Turner (Carmen Ejogo) that shows this beautifully. Knapp asks "So what kind of fifteen-year-old reads Buddhist Epistemology?" to which Turner replies "A lonely one." And then she asks "Don't tell me you've read it" to which he replies "Hnm-mm. Not this translation." Finally, there's Delroy Lindo as the marvellously named Latimer King. His physical presence marks him as a man who is in charge, and the way that the other agents react to him at his retirement ceremony and then after he takes on the case confirms that he's very good at what he does. It's an impression confirmed by the way that Knapp reacts to him on the phone call. There's a deep mutual respect there; one has the feeling that there aren't too many people that Knapp has respect for and few of them work for the FBI. Comparing the cast of this with the cast of Vanished is like comparing the latest high performance supercar with an inexpensive product of one of the big three auto makers. The American car does the job but the supercar makes you enjoy what it's doing. Of course the strength of the cast is only part of it. The writers of Kidnapped give this superb cast speeches that fit the situation they are in and which come across as believable. As for the direction, the pace is absolutely perfect. Where the pilot of Vanished seemed to be in a rush to get us between action scenes and to not give us time to recognize how weak either the cast or the writing were, the first episode of Kidnapped managed to pack a great deal into its hour but in a manner that still let us enjoy the quiet, personal moments like Conrad Cain making a peanut butter and Jelly sandwich for his daughter but being so distracted that he doesn't realize that he's using mayonnaise instead of peanut butter. Not only is it a perfect symbol for the grief he's feeling that his son has been abducted but it's the sort of personal moment that can easily be so easily ignored if the focus is too much on the investigation, as it almost has to be in most episodic cop shows. It's an example of using the serial form to good advantage, something that I don't really feel that Vanished does.

I think you can guess that I really like this show. It may very well be one of the best things that I've seen so far this season, and it is definitely on my list of shows to go out of the way to see. I'll make sure the VCR is set properly this week because this is one show that I want to make sure I don't miss. I highly recommend it.

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