New drama ‘The Blacklist’ delivers big twists
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2013 09:09
NBC made a good call by picking up “The Blacklist.” The long-struggling network, which has seen consistently poor ratings over the past few years, has finally found a show — other than “The Voice” (2010-present) — that might prove to be a real hit. It debuted with solid numbers, though of course it probably helps that “The Voice,” whose season premiere delivered an impressive 14.7 million person audience, is the new drama’s lead-in. That’s not to say that “The Blacklist” is incapable of drawing in viewers on its own merit; the fast-paced thriller has garnered generally positive reviews thus far, and with the pilot’s concluding cliff-hanger, audiences will likely tune back in next week.
The drama follows the story of Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), a former government official who is now listed as one of the FBI’s Most Wanted. Spader turns himself in to the authorities and even offers to help them track down other criminals and terrorists — on one condition. Reddington insists on communicating solely with rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). The first half of the pilot is spent establishing these basic facts — and it makes for a fairly unimaginative start. This is not so much due to Spader and Boone — who actually do commendable work — but rather stems from the writers’ reliance on overplayed thriller tropes and stereotypes. The first 20 minutes are so predictable that they are almost not worth watching.
Reddington informs Keen that an Eastern European terrorist, presumed dead, is actually alive and well; he has slipped into the country intent on kidnapping a high-ranking general’s daughter and terrorizing the general population of Washington, D.C. The FBI brings the little girl into its custody, but as soon as it does so — surprise, surprise — the terrorist’s henchmen trap the FBI vehicles on a bridge, snatch her away, shoot some agents, blow up a car or two and escape on conveniently-located motorboats. This dramatic sequence also features agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), one of Keen’s higher-ups, inexplicably jumping off the bridge; the moment seems to occur simply because one of the writers thought it might be a cool visual. It isn’t.
The twists and turns the show delivers in its first act are simply tired and played out, though luckily, the second half of the pilot is much more promising. The surprises do not suddenly become innovative or fresh, but they are at least more intriguing and have the potential to be sources for upcoming storylines.
“The Blacklist” is essentially a vehicle for Spader to spend his screen time playing creepily intriguing puppet master. Spader’s slow, distinctive cadence and textured voice are unsettlingly seductive, and he easily steals every scene he’s in. Boone is solid as newbie Keen, though her character’s development is rather stiff and doesn’t feel fully realized yet. (She wants to be a mother! Her husband seems like a classic nice guy! She has a sad, mysterious past!)
The pilot indicated that future episodes will explore more of her past — to which Reddington has an unexplained connection — and with the supporting cast essentially non-existent, this would certainly be a welcome development. “The Blacklist” is clearly only dedicated to two characters — a shame for Klattenhoff who does good work as Marine Mike Faber on the much finer twisty thriller “Homeland” (2011-present) — and as such Keen very much needs to be fleshed out. The writers have to create a character audiences can both invest themselves in and also find believable.
This may be a pipe dream, however, since “The Blacklist” certainly isn’t striving for any sort of believability. Beyond the plethora of twists, this incarnation of the FBI seems to exist in some sort of fantasyland where protocol is of no real concern. This lack of regulation, of course, is not uncommon in television and film, where we often see the protagonist charge into dangerous situations before even thinking of calling for backup or informing a colleague. “The Blacklist” continues this pop culture tradition — and though it’s ridiculous — it fits right in with the show. When a series steers this far away from reality, it becomes much easier to enjoy simply for its sheer entertainment value.
“The Blacklist” is good, old-fashioned mindless fun, and though it doesn’t operate with the subtlety and grace of other low-rated, critically adored NBC shows like “Parenthood” (2010-present), it may be just what the beleaguered network needs to find ratings success again.