DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. 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, drama and surprises are a lot more plentiful, and "Crisis" starts out almost like a season of "24," except 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.
Susie, who speaks first, is played by Rachael Taylor. Anderson plays Meg Fitch, her corporation-running big sister.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "CRISIS")
RACHAEL TAYLOR: (As Susie Dunn) And your company, Any enemies there that might benefit from this?
GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Meg Fitch) We are a multinational IT corporation. We sell to governments, armed forces and businesses here and abroad. I have 350,000 employees. So to answer your question, yes, I have enemies. Most everyone else here does, too. Are you just going to ask me about my business, Susie?
TAYLOR: (As Susie) That's how I do my job.
ANDERSON: (As Meg) Well, you are tougher than I remember.
TAYLOR: (As Susie) It's been a long time.
ANDERSON: (As Meg) Well, you're tougher than me. I'm not sure how much longer I can keep this up, not today. Maybe one of us should just say it. One of us should just say the words.
TAYLOR: (As Susie) Look, I know you wrote that book, "Seven Paths to Success," and I know that clarity is one of them. So for clarity, I am here to find your daughter Amber, to find all their kids. That is why I'm here, and I think - I think I should question one of the other parents, OK?
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE)
TAYLOR: (As Susie) I'll get you a different agent. Excuse me.
BIANCULLI: Complicated relationships are all over this "Crisis" series. Dermot Mulroney plays the father of one of the kidnapped kids. He was on the bus as a chaperone. But before the bus was taken over, his daughter didn't want to even acknowledge his presence, yet 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" is 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 the drama series about a wrongly imprisoned cop who was freed after a dozen years on death row. And 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.