The Blacklist Series Premiere Review: The James Spader Show

By Tim Surette

Sep 24, 2013

The Blacklist S01E01: "Pilot"

Why wait? Let's get right to it: So master-criminal Raymond "Red" Reddington has a daughter who he abandoned, and rookie FBI agent Elizabeth Keen was abandoned by her criminal father. There'd better be more to the big secret of NBC's new thriller The Blacklist than Red wanting to work with Keen because she's his kid, 'cause if there isn't, the rest of The Blacklist isn't going to make the show a must-see drama week in and week out. I don't know whether Keen is in fact Red's daughter (and for the sake of everything holy she'd better not be), but once that thought entered my mind (which happened sometime during the first trailer that NBC released last May), it was hard to see their relationship in any other way. It can't be this obvious, can it? Either it's the worst-kept secret of the new fall season or The Blacklist has some big surprises up its sleeve.

Putting all that aside, however, The Blacklist is still a pretty decent little show by NBC's plummeting standards, and the network is really hoping that the James Spader-starring drama will end its scripted-series cold streak. It probably won't, but it has a much better chance of success than any other new NBC drama this season, unless I've underestimated the power of energy-conscious Twilight fans flocking to DraculaSpader is his Spadest as master criminal Red Reddington, a most-wanted man who surrenders to the FBI and offers to help them catch other crooks, who all appear on what he calls his "Blacklist." The gimmick is that he'll only work with FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who's so new to the agency—the pilot took place on her first day on the job—that she doesn't even know where the bathroom is. From there, a fairly standard procedural flirted with serialized elements while Red helped Keen hunt down a potential terrorist named Zamani. Or did he help the terrorist almost realize a plan to bomb Washington D.C. with a chemical weapon? Or was he using the terrorist to facilitate his own nefarious plan, which somehow involves Keen and her husband? It's all a little foggy so far, and not in a rewarding way.

After the standard pilot introductions, things got a little muddled—particularly in the second half of the episode. Red escaped heavily manned FBI watch by CLIMBING OUT OF A HOSPITAL WINDOW, had a friendly chat with the terrorist Zamani and confirmed that Zamani had nearly killed Keen's husband at Red's request, led the FBI to Zamani by planting his own tracking device on him, and then helped defuse Zamani's chemical-weapon bomb—which had been strapped to the kidnapped daughter of a U.S. general. Oh, and did I mention that the reason Red was in the hospital was that Keen stabbed him in the neck with a pen? The only thing I can assume is that Red pretended to be chummy with Zamani in order to get more information on the nature of the attack, and then used that information to help Keen save the day. We still don't know what the hell Red is up to, whose side he's on, or why he did anything that he did (aside from bleeding when he got stabbed), but maybe that's the point of both the character and The Blacklist. Red is a free agent who can still mix it up in the criminal world because the bad guys don't know he's working with the FBI. I guess?

It's ambitious, going for ambivalence to pique our curiosity, but I don't think the pilot pulled off its attempt as well as it could have. It might've been more successful Red had ever fooled us into believing in him (or gave us a reason to definitely hate him), but he started off somewhat-untrustworthy and remained somewhat-untrustworthy, rather than convincing us to commit to an opinion of him and then flipping our expectations. There just wasn't much surprise from him. I liked Spader's performance a lot, but Red is just an odd duck who can't be pegged. Sometimes a show can use that to its advantage, but here the character didn't show us much except a creepy way to say, "I think you're special." 

And that confusion infected the plot as well. Consider how that terrorist was caught: Red cut out his implanted-in-his-body tracking device and put it in Zamani's detonator, leading the feds right to the bad guy. Did Zamani know? Had he given up because of all those neck boils? Or did Red trick him? I don't know. All I know is that  Zamani's plight and plot quickly fizzled out because all that happened was the guy from Homeland shot him. Not exactly the most exciting way to off the big bad guy in the series premiere. And just to add to the confusion, the bomb—which was strapped to a little girl—was defused by a Red-recommended, one-man Ukrainian bomb squad, who then ran off into the woods with it while waving and yelling "Thanks!" 

But that wasn't all! Keen went home to clean up her husband's insides from the carpet and found a secret compartment under the floorboards. It contained a box full of fake passports with her husband's picture in them, stacks of hundred-dollar bills, and a gun. Like an overprotective dad, or perhaps as an overprotective dad, Red had been questioning whether Keen really knew her husband Tom throughout most of the episode, and it looks like daddy Red was right. Tom is apparently some sort of master bad guy, and that's one more mystery to throw into this confusion sandwich. 

The Blacklist's pilot would've benefited from holding back a bit. By throwing so much at us instead of focusing on Keen and Red, the episode may have done more harm than good. The best parts of the hour were when Red was guiding Keen through the case and telling her how to think (although the rest of the FBI standing around like idiots was weird). It's a tried-and-true Silence of the Lambs-type of situation, but Spader plays the part well and it was the only time the show came close to building up a relationship between the two. I would have gladly watched a whole hour of that.

It's all in good fun, though, and the pacing of the episode did a nice job of distracting us from asking too many questions in the moment. Joe Carnahan did a bang-up job directing, and kept things moving along nicely. The kidnapping of the general's daughter was particularly impressive, what with the cars crashing and the guns shooting and the boats boating, and no scene was so quiet that a bunch of helicopters and SUVs and heavily armed men couldn't swoop in at any time. And they often did. A lot of the snazzy action and spiffy pacing may be a cover-up for subpar writing, but the pilot kept things entertaining enough that I'd like to see the second episode. Hopefully it will clear up a few things.


– What a cool cat Keen was! She overslept on her first day of work at the FBI! I realize her alarm clock was reset, but she must be the deepest, most relaxed sleeper in the world to not be antsy and wake up at 6am because of sheer nerves over starting a job at the FBI. I would've at least set my iPhone alarm as a backup. 

– And who in their right mind would schedule an important adoption meeting on her first day of work at the FBI? If this is her idea of responsibility, she doesn't deserve a child. Or a job at the FBI. I mean seriously. It's her first day of work. Not just any work, but work at the FBI. Did she think she could sneak it in on her lunch break? That's something a crazy person would do, right? An adoption meeting... on her first day of work... at the FBI. And guess what? The adoption storyline didn't really matter a whole lot, did it? It could've easily been substituted for a conference call with the adoption agency to find out if they'd been chosen, instead of an in-person meeting. Yes! This is a major sticking point with me!

– Seriously, that car-crashing shootout on the bridge was wayyyy cool. But how did Zamani know to set up there? Did he know the FBI would grab the general's daughter and then take that very route over the bridge at that very time? Doesn't it take a lot of time to set up an ambush like that? And then he had to close the bridge for a while? Wouldn't the Department of Transportation be like, "Ummm no ambush setups between the hours of 3pm and 7pm!"? Zamani told Keen he didn't know how the FBI had figured out his plan, but it seemed like his plan relied on the FBI taking the daughter. Me so confused! Or bad writing. 

– Hey look! It's Nina from The Americans playing an FBI agent! And wow, look at all those sexy agents. Does this group of FBI agents at "The Post Office" also double as a modeling agency?

What'd you think of the series premiere? 

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  • Nordoki Mar 25, 2014

    Let's begin with Spader's surrender to the FBI. He drops to his knees, locks his fingers behind his head and still every FBI agent in the country has to surround him with guns drawn? Overkill.

    Next we have the FBI going to pick up the late-for-work-on-her-first-day new agent. They have to send 2 cars that arrive from opposite directions plus a helicopter and they all just happen to arrive simultaneously? Over Overkill.

    Then the abduction. They get warned something like this will happen and yet when they come to the blockage on the bridge nobody gets suspicious?

    This all goes unnoticed by the salivating fans?

  • 2paijon Jan 01, 2014

    Its entertainment at its best. Everyone must be hooked, why keep dissecting it. Just enjoy it. I certainly am.

  • tommyc62 Nov 07, 2013

    What was the exact tracking chip Red asked to be implanted? I remember him giving some specifics. I might have to go watch that episode again.

  • youngnan Oct 06, 2013

    I want a conversation to happen between Red, Cyrus and Papa Pope. Somebody write a crossover fanfic and make that happen please!

  • youngnan Oct 06, 2013

    I will watch 22 episodes of Spader being cool and awesome. Where do I sign up for six seasons and a movie. This could be my new Alias. Always love a good father "daughter" spy drama.

  • JT_Kirk Oct 05, 2013

    Finally watched this on Muderboy's advice. It's better than I expected, and worse than I expected, and cute enough to pass muster. I don't really think much of these FBI agents in the pilot, they seem to lose their motivation about halfway through and become background wallpaper while Red and Keen play around. Unfortunately, Keen is the one character that really brought it down for me, she's simply not interesting enough on her own, they throw more concepts at her but then also give her more cheap gimmicks and pitiful skills and twists and it just feels forced. So a mixed review, but I'll watch again.

  • mikel60 Oct 03, 2013

    This role is "made for Spader". This is why we fell in love with him so many years ago. He knows how to play the arrogant smart-ass so well. Love the show so far. Many unanswered questions, which keeps me hooked.

  • 2paijon Jan 01, 2014

    That says it all, total agree...Spader plays this part excellent!

  • KateSullivan Sep 29, 2013

    So I was prepared for what seemed to be the major it wasn't actually her first day just her first really there in LA. But also..usually the final adoption meeting is meeting like four and a desperate couple might just say yes to next date without consulting their calenders.

    While I knew the secret of husband was coming..I think they made it so he's a bad guy that I think he is CIA. I think Annie has a similar box on Covert Affairs. Of course that leads more to the Red is Liz's father thinking. But then well she was eight not a baby when he left (if we believe she was telling the truth to Beth) so shouldn't she know? Then yeah the Homeland guy was right how did she pass her initial backgound check? And Agent Cook there I got a he's been on Red's case from the beginning vibe..he would have known her as a little girl. I am more betting that Red might have been best friends with dad or otherwise worked with him and either at dad's request or just because he was keeping tabs and discovered both the whole Tom thing and maybe is sick himself so thought this would be a fun way to spend his time. I think Red's little right hand man will be a fun little snarky person to pop up every once in awhile.

  • jjafargi Oct 04, 2013

    Perhaps Red and Lizzy's dad were tight back in the day and Red somehow got him killed. That's why he "disappeared" and now Red feels guilty, so he's making amends by looking after and guiding her.

  • KateSullivan Oct 04, 2013

    I suspect something more like that (though I still wouldn't be surprised if he is her father) either he was her father's best friend or something. While I might have had Breaking Bad on the brain, I keep wondering why the FBI maybe didn't think to put him through some sort of medical procedure or something because I sort of wonder if he is sick or something.

  • garakawa Oct 05, 2013

    I would guess that her father will be the last guy in the blacklist and he's using her to get to him.

  • jjafargi Oct 08, 2013

    Ooh, that's a fascinating theory!

  • youngnan Oct 06, 2013

    Kudos for this idea. Let's all go with this.

  • KateSullivan Oct 05, 2013

    That would actually be very cool...also would help the cause of Tom maybe being a good guy since she might eventually need help against Red.

  • ddstephens Sep 29, 2013

    I found this first show very entertaining. Love Spader, always have. I like his coolness and he is a little creepy in this and I like it that way. Now the FBI chick not so much. I don't mind if she is his daughter. I liked the cat and mouse in the show. I did find it all twisty turny but I found it not so confusing and was able to follow it. You just got to pay attention. Like him escaping from the hospital the guy in the elevator helped him. It is just showing he has peeps everywhere helping him in his plan. Now what the real plan is we just don't know yet. Is he a bad guy or a good guy...I think both. I am going to watch this for awhile and hope it remains good. We will see. But Spader is one cool cat..and that mellow voice just gets me...Hey he likes Frank Sinatra so he can't be all bad...

  • graindesable Sep 28, 2013

    I've loved Spader since Sex, Lies and Videotapes ; I'd watch anything with him. But if the FBI girl turns out to be his daughter, I'll murder someone !

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