How Hijack Helped Usher in the New Reign of Mid-TV

When Succession ended its four-season run in May, fans of the HBO drama felt a bit like Kendall Roy: depressed, distraught, lost. The prestigious show about petulant people had seized the monocultural moment (on Twitter, at the very least) and left a glaring question: What would fill its void?

Through the end of spring, the answer wasn’t clear. As the Roy children were taking parting shots, other prestige shows—Ted Lasso, Barry, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—were also closing up shop, competing for eyeballs by rounding out their stories ahead of the Emmy’s cutoff date. And though many looked forward to The Bear returning for its critically-acclaimed second season in June, Hulu dropped all of its 10 episodes at once, leaving eager binge-watchers a small pick-up window to savor and discuss each manic and tender episode. A change of pace—something that didn’t feel so emotionally and culturally important—was needed.

Enter: Hijack, the seven-episode Apple TV+ series, which debuted at the end of June and quickly became the latest form of addicting television. It stars Idris Elba as Sam Nelson, an expert corporate negotiator who must use his particular set of verbal skills when his seven-hour flight from Dubai to London gets hijacked. As the series unfolds, it toggles between the tense chaos up in the air and government officials on the ground, racing to prevent a massive tragedy from occurring. In direct contradiction to the platform’s niche and highbrow lineup, Hijack revels in its half-brained caricatures, ticking-clock melodrama, and cliffhanger plot twists. In effect, the throwback “what would you do?” thriller turned into the improbable show of the summer.

That’s no small feat. Even when the Disneys, Marvels, and Amazons have invested major capital and major star power into refurbishing their IP, they’ve struggled to produce a riptide within the vast ocean of television. On the other end of the spectrum, throughout the writer and SAG-AFTRA strikes, union members have expressed concerns about A.I.-produced scripts as streamers have admitted interest in producing more “second-screen” content, creating a sort-of ambient television experience. As reported recently in The New Yorker, “network notes now request that shows be less engaging so that distracted audiences won’t lose track of the plot and turn them off.” Breaking out within the watch-at-home landscape has proven to be a daunting challenge.

But Hijack seemed to find a middle ground and cut through the clutter. Like this year’s Netflix hits The Night Agent and The Diplomat, the mid-air soap opera relied on a compelling if not hokey script, a sleek production design, and an earnest star to maintain its credibility and strengthen its frequent suspensions of disbelief. Its middlebrow sensibility and weekly rollout—a nostalgic return to summer network television filling the prestige vacuum—also entered the zeitgeist at the perfect time, gaining enough viewership and online discussions to warrant hype for a second season.

Just consider Apple TV+’s expanding digital library. When the platform launched in November of 2019, it attracted big-time stars and auteurs to produce a potpourri of premium scripted series: Ted Lasso, Dickinson, Servant, and The Morning Show. Over the last year, those buzzy titles have gained diverse company on the Apple shelf—along with Hijack, offerings like Severance, Silo, and Slow Horses have formed an alliterative collection of engaging sci-fi, spy, and dystopian thrillers (genres typically overlooked come awards time) with high-profile actors operating on less than blockbuster budgets. Refusing to only be the home of weighty, intellectual comedies and dramas, the tech giant has gone old-school, mimicking some of its streaming rivals with accessible, goofy, but visceral television.

To its credit, Hijack doesn’t cruise at a “so bad it’s actually good” altitude. It makes a genuine effort, which is part of its appeal. Writer-creators George Kay and Jim Field Smith do well enough infusing the drama with plausible stakes and real-world scenarios, ambitiously investing in more than two dozen characters between the Flight KA29 passengers, air traffic controllers, London authorities, criminal masterminds, and concerned family members. Plot turns hinge on everything from the nuances of bullet designs, to the intricacies of a commercial airline cockpit in a post-9/11 world, and the online chat functions of the in-flight entertainment system. Mostly, though, the show is held up by Elba, operating on an almost throwback A-list movie star mode the way he carries every plot twist and character archetype around him as a muted and impressively level-headed protagonist.

Much like the best ‘90s and early 2000s action heroes, Elba’s Sam has an everyman appeal and an unexpected ability to talk down his enemies. Still, he’s not using brawn to defend innocent civilians on behalf of governmental agencies like Jack Bauer, even if Hijack does echo 24’s real-time countdown structure.

Invariably, things get a little silly, especially because Hijack parcels out information like breadcrumbs on its twist-and-turn flight path. Case in point: over the first several episodes, it’s unclear what this motley group of terrorists—ranging in age and ethnicity—is doing together, and how their plan is actually supposed to unfold. Something about them all just feels off. Outside of waving their guns, none of these novice hijackers knows the geography of the cockpit, understands ATC lingo, or seems prepared to handle the inevitable on-board issues that will arise with 200-plus hungry and thirsty passengers, some of whom need medical attention. This is Hostage Taking 101, a course they apparently all failed. It’s not long before the logistics holding the plot together start to unravel, making it obvious that this hijacking could have been thwarted a few episodes sooner.

Hijack’s inconsistencies make up all great popcorn potboilers—enough credibility and engaging performances to get you hooked, and enough ludicrous moments to ease the viewing experience. In some ways, its cliffhanger structure made it the perfect show to drop—and then binge—all at once.

As the future of streaming becomes murkier and more cluttered, it’s become increasingly clear: we’ve left the golden age of television. In the wake of Hijack’s summer reign, Paramount+ has seemingly grabbed the late August popularity baton, dropping weekly episodes of Special Ops: Lioness, another pulpy undercover spy thriller featuring a bankable star, this time appealing to an ambiguously conservative demographic. The retro wave of middlebrow television offers a palate cleanser to the weighty investment of superior programming. As Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture in 2016, “the obsession with [prestige] shows—and our cultural tendency to see a certain type of show as having artistic worth—has put a stranglehold on television’s creativity in terms of what types of stories are prioritized.” Sometimes, you just want to watch a badass dude take down some hijackers.

Originally Appeared on GQ