The Blacklist (2013) – Created by Jon Bokenkamp – Episode 1, “Pilot” – Directed by Joe Carnahan – Starring James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Ryan Eggold, and Harry Lennix.
I thought the ads for THE BLACKLIST, NBC’s new drama that’s more Silence of the Lambs than their actual show about Hannibal Lecter, looked rather silly. I knew I was going to give the show a few episodes because there’s no actor better chewing your television screen than James Spader at the moment, but the whole Lecter/Clarice Starling vibe looked a bit weak, to me.
With the first episode in the book, I’m even more worried about the Lecter/Starling dynamic between Raymond Reddington (Spader) and his chosen FBI agent/puppet, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), but even happier to tune in every week to watch James Spader do what James Spader does.
Thirty minutes into the pilot episode, my fears were outpacing my hopes. One of the decisions producers make that drive me batty is when they hire really talented actors to sit in the background when they have less-talented actors carrying the water. That’s what the opening half of THE BLACKLIST offers up, as James Spader and Henry Lennix have less to do that Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, and Ryan Eggold. It’s not that Boone, Klattenhoff, and Eggold are bad, necessarily, it’s that they’re generic TV People. The nation is not going to be moved by cute/nerdy/empty Elizabeth Keen, or her predictable/gruff/Let’sElizabethDoWhateverSheWants FBI Suit boss, or her nerd-with-a-secret husband. No, their job is to keep the machine rolling forward between Spader appearances; you can’t overuse Lennix because no one is going to believe he’ll continually act tough and then cave whenever Red or Keen want to bend and break the rules.
Around the show’s midpoint, however, after Keen’s husband gets stabbed by the episode’s bad guy, the show lets Reddington loose and the show picks up some serious steam.
The premise of THE BLACKLIST is a good one: Reddington is ex-FBI turned international criminal who simply walks into FBI headquarters one day and turns himself in. He offers his services to the FBI to catch the really really really really bad guys, and in exchange he gets to stay in expensive hotels and only talk to Elizabeth Keen, a brand new FBI agent who central command has never even heard of. Keen is equally perplexed, as she has no connection to Reddington.
That’s the set-up and that’s all that’s important. BLACKLIST gets distracted with elements we don’t need because they don’t add anything to the show: Keen and hubby are trying to adopt a daughter, hubby is actually some kind of spy, Reddington and the episode’s bad guy are, at some level, conspiring with one another. All of these elements feel like the show is trying too hard to be something clever, when it’s perfectly enjoyable being something simpler. Earlier this week, I talked about appreciating how Sleepy Hollow is going to keep tossing ideas at your screen, hoping something sticks. That works there because it’s a show with the Headless Horseman firing an automatic rifle in the middle of modern America. It’s a ridiculous premise and it can thrive with ridiculous twists.
In THE BLACKLIST, though, a touch more restraint will work better. I didn’t care a bit about the husband when he was Mr. Nice Guy, nor a bit when he was Tied Up Hostage Getting Stabbed, nor when Keen found his secret wooden box filled with passports and a gun. Keen’s reaction – to run to Reddington, who clearly Knows More Than He’s Telling – foreshadows more of this silliness. All of the background secrets and mysteries just didn’t work for me. Maybe over the long haul they’ll start to click and reward long-term viewing, maybe they’ll provide the necessary “something else” to the weekly plots to stop bad guys, but sometimes less is more with these shows. CBS is the master of this approach; they put an approachable idea forward and then keep the characters from mucking it up. That doesn’t make great television but it can make highly enjoyable television. I’m never making plans to tune in to watch NCIS, but if I’m dogsitting at a house with cable and there’s an NCIS marathon on, I can watch 12 episodes in a row. I can’t help but think, though, that BLACKLIST would be infinitely more entertaining if the set-up was Reddington would only talk to Lennix, because that would be a stronger battle of wills. That would also require the writers to be smarter, however, because it’s easier to manipulate the rookie than the veteran.
Watching James Spader make the FBI uncomfortable is better TV in the pilot episode than all of his interactions with “Lizzie.” The FBI is at UNIT levels of incompetence in BLACKLIST, somehow missing vital information about Keen’s parents and husband in their apparently opposite-of-thorough background checks. The best scene of the entire show is when Reddington is checked into a luxury hotel where the staff knows him because of how it makes the FBI uncomfortable, both for this super criminal getting the luxury treatment on their dime and the fact that he’s been so close to them so often in the past that the nearby hotel knows who he is.
In fact, somewhat surprisingly, it’s the quieter moments from Spader that work better than the bluster. When he’s making demands or insisting on talking to Lizzie, the show is a bit flat, but when he checks in at the FBI security desk and then slowly prepares himself to be arrested once the FBI’s computers realize who he is, that’s when THE BLACKLIST becomes gripping television.
THE BLACKLIST is in my Hulu queue and there’s no reason to take it off. My guess is that this will not be a show where the episodes pile up, but will be quickly consumed once a new episode appears. It’s James Spader that’s bringing me back, and my hope is that they give him a stronger foil than sweet Lizzie, or that the background mysteries pick up steam. If a show gives me a half-hour of James Spader being James Spader, though, it will have to actively try to make me not want to watch it. THE BLACKLIST may be little more at this point that the Adventures of James Spader and Generic TV People, but for now, that’s good enough to create a solidly enjoyable show.
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