Two valet attendants are outside a hotel and one has just returned a car to one of the hotel's guests. The two attendants are friends — they spend a lot of time together — so it doesn't take long before they're frantically discussing some of their favorite movies from their favorite movie star. "Don’t even get me started on that one where they took his daughter," one says.
"Straight Tooken," the other responds. "Starring Liam Neesons."
"Man, Liam Neesons on the phone like, 'I have a certain set of skills.' Man, don't fuck with Liam Neesons."
Sadly, this isn't a very meta opening scene to NBC's Taken series. It's a sketch from Comedy Central's Key & Peele. It is, however, a much better riff of the Taken movie franchise than NBC's new show, which has inexplicably forgotten what makes the films — or, more realistically, just the first — so great.
The original Taken was an entertaining vehicle for Liam Neeson, who, along with Keanu Reeves in John Wick, became the last person you'd ever want to fuck with. Just as Reeves unleashes gun-fu hell for anyone associated with the guy who killed his dog, Neeson will find and kill people — with his particular set of skills — for kidnapping his daughter.
It's a pretty simple formula for success, and yet it's one NBC retooled in the strangest way possible. Gone is Neeson as ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills and enter Viking's star Clive Standen as, um, a younger Bryan Mills. This Taken is a prequel — while somehow also existing in the present day — that focuses on Mills' early days entering the agency that jump-started his career after a personal tragedy.
It is Taken only by name, the network seemingly assuming that viewers will be pulled into the mythos of Mills. But if he's not running halfway across the world to rescue his daughter, and he's not played with the steely charisma of Neeson, what's the point?
Taken begins with the death of Mills' younger sister during an attempted terrorist attack on a train (in which she is the only casualty). Mills seeks revenge to track down the people who started the attack. One thing leads to another, and Mills finds himself pulled into working for the CIA's covert operations unit that helps prevent such attacks in the first place.
Of the four episodes of Taken released to critics, this boils down to a situation of the week for Mills and his team to solve — usually with Mills front and center using some last-minute heroics. The format is formulaic, with Mills' primary goal outside of his episodic cases being finding a way to kill the man responsible for his sister's death.
Among the scenarios, episode three is perhaps its most prescient and effective. What starts off as a potentially tone-deaf terrorist plot by an Iraqi man living in the United States is ultimately subverted by a scheme from war-mongering white men trying to incite another war against Islam by kidnapping and strapping a suicide vest to the Iraqi man's chest. Take notes, 24: Legacy.
It also helps that Taken burns through its plots in single episodes, which allows the series to focus on Mills beating up nameless henchmen — which is occasionally fun — over spending too much time on its paper-thin supporting characters. Seriously, if you're able to name a single character outside of Mills after watching, you're as skilled as the lead character.
There are also painfully on-the-nose callbacks to the original series, like when a DEA agent tells Mills he should never have kids — especially not a daughter. They serve no purpose other than to remind viewers (and perhaps the people who greenlit the series) that this is somehow related to the Taken franchise.
The lack of originality from the poorly contrived Taken series is most indicting seeing as it's come from NBC. The network couldn't be more paradoxical with its programming, ranging from unique, critically acclaimed concepts that are the best among network television (This Is Us and The Good Place) and complete, unoriginal dumpster fires (Emerald City). The Taken series easily falls into the latter category — should any of this come as a surprise?
After two sequels failed to capture the magic of the original Taken, it's about time this concept was put to rest. If not, Neeson ought to remind NBC he has honed a specific set of vocational abilities to stop this type of bullshit.
Taken premieres Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC.