In season full of mediocre (or worse) new shows, NBC's The Blacklist has been a nice surprise. When I saw the pilot, I thought it had no business being as rock-solid as it was (and Tim mostly agreed), but I wrote off the show's long-term prospects because I didn't think James Spader was enough to carry the show on a weekly basis, and the ongoing story about Red and Elizabeth seemed pretty obvious. However, after catching up on the series this past weekend and watching Monday's "General Ludd," I realized that I was only partially correct. Spader is mostly up to the challenge as The Blacklist's centerpiece, and the ongoing story is pretty obvious, but the show has done quite a bit of legwork to keep it compelling in the first eight weeks. Although it's likely that the plum post-Voice time period gives The Blacklist most of its ratings juice, I'm no longer shocked that it's the season's biggest hit. Here's why.
1. A good balance of procedural stories and ongoing mysteries
I've had a few discussions with friends lately about what it means to be a broadcast drama in 2013. One of the takeaways has been that, more often than not, when people think of a broadcast drama, they tend to focus on shows that are almost exclusively procedural, relegating the obviously "great" examples like The Good Wife or Scandal to a small group of outliers that are more often compared to "great" cable shows. And while I love the kind of intense serialized stories those series can tell, shows like The Blacklist prove that the procedural-serial mix can thrive as well. While the show is generally driven by its weekly open-and-shut "cases," it does a nice job of dropping in on the more important mysteries and character stuff as well.
2. A strong combination of cases and criminals...
The show's titular list of bad guys gives The Blacklist a strong procedural foundation to work with on a weekly basis, and although that kind of approach is always going to result in some stinkers (like this week's story, despite Justin Kirk's best efforts and best hair-bleaching), there's a level of competent storytelling there that shouldn't be totally discarded. The main characters work for the FBI, but the seemingly never-ending diversity of the criminals who populate the list allows the show to tackle different kinds of cases every week. One week, Elizabeth, Red, and the crew are dealing with master decrypters; the next, they're chasing a family man who turns people into chemical ooze.
3. ...especially the more recent weirder stuff
Interestingly, the show also seems willing to dabble in slightly odd pseudo-science territory, which gives the cases another tinge of speciality from week to week. "The Stewmaker," "Frederick Barnes," and "The Courier" introduced us to characters who weren't necessarily implausible as far as reality goes, but they certainly verged on the weird. The opening scenes of "Frederick Barnes" and even this week's "General Ludd" could've easily been Fringe teasers. That's kind of cool.
4. A solid platform for good character actors in guest spots
Finally, The Blacklist has done what every procedural-heavy show should do, especially in its early episodes: Hire good performers to show up, chew some scenery, and be weird as the weekly villain. It's such a simple idea, but I appreciate the way The Blacklist has embraced it thus far. Tom Noonan, House's Robert Sean Leonard, and Prison Break's Robert Knepper were all really strong in their work as the aforementioned "The Stewmaker," "Frederick Barnes," and "The Courier," respectively. These villains-of-the-week are often just big ideas that the actors then have to fill with personality and particular ticks, but in those cases, the character on the page matched the resulting performance quite well. Although the show might be pushing the weekly villains' families too much, that's something that often comes with the procedural framework. All told, the procedural stuff here isn't amazing by any means, but The Blacklist is at least trying to make its baddies interesting, and sometimes it succeeds for an entire hour.
5. Ongoing mysteries that aren't yet overwhelming the show
The question marks surrounding Elizabeth, with regard to both her real connection to Red and whether or not her husband is a deep-cover operative, have been fairly successfully integrated into the weekly proceedings. Neither concern ever totally disappears, and the show continues to provide little nuggets of pertinent info without them seeming like a lame tease. After the pilot, it seemed SO OBVIOUS that Red was Elizabeth's father, that Tom was a spy, and that those things were probably somehow related. But one thing I've enjoyed about the seven episodes we've seen since is that The Blacklist hasn't really shied away from those initial, very clearly telegraphed endpoints. When "Gina Zanetakos" a few weeks back fully interrogated Tom's allegiances and delved into what he did or did not know about the Keenes' trip to Boston, the show "proved" his innocence, only to almost immediately have Red suggest that the proof was bull. This week's episode gave us the first big info dump about Elizabeth's paternity. We met her cancer-ridden adoptive father, and the show went just about as far as it could go in admitting that Red is Elizabeth's biological father without simply saying HEY, THIS GUY RIGHT HERE IS HER REAL DAD, NOT THIS ABOUT-TO-DIE GUY.
The Blacklist could've just as easily run immediately away from either of these stories, because it focused on them so clearly in the pilot. Instead, the show seems dedicated to finding a compelling, complicated way to tell them. Thus far, it's been pretty successful. The most likely outcome is that Tom is up to something, and that Red is somehow related to Elizabeth. This week's episode seemed to suggest that at least one of Red's daughters is a murderer or was murdered; perhaps that's what ultimately led to his abandonment of Elizabeth (if that's clearer to you, let's hear your theories in the comments).
Plus, the scene between Red and Tom outside the hospital also hinted toward some more nefarious dealings on that end of Elizabeth's life, AND the show still needs to deal with the creepy apple-eating dude and the surveillance team watching the Keene house. Though there are a number of balls in the air already, they're falling at the right rate.
Of course, the danger with these stories is that the show either eventually tries too hard to throw us off the scent, or waits too long to reveal what we knew all along. But those are dangers for later in the season, or even for future seasons. As of now, that's not a major concern for me. The show has earned my trust.
6. Red's not an anti-hero, he's a villain
I like that Red is an extremely selfish, villainous character. You can call him an anti-hero if you want, but he's also a straight-up murderer, thief, liar, etc. Although there's a version of The Blacklist that lasts for a decade and sees Red softening up over time, the show is currently committed to reminding us at least once a week that Red's a pretty bad dude. The only things he really cares about are enjoying himself and fulfilling his still-vague goals. Those goals might involve his family, but it's not like he's doing anything out of the kindness of his heart. He isn't someone we should really be rooting for, and the show isn't totally asking us to.
Meanwhile, Red's relationship with Elizabeth is complicated. The scenes between the two of them are mostly strong, and yet I don't really think The Blacklist is asking us to trust Red (or anyone). From my cursory following of the discussion about the show, it seems like some people don't like Elizabeth (or Megan Boone's portrayal of her), but I think she's been solid as a character who's kind of stupid. The show hasn't quite figured out how to illustrate that Elizabeth is talented, yes, but also super green, and completely in-over-her-head with this new role, leading to a number of scenes where there's way more of the latter than the former. Boone is still finding her way, just as the character is.
7. JAMES MF'ING SPADER
And of course, there's the Spader. He's been pretty great, even when the material hasn't totally there. And when the material has been there, he's been awesome. It's nice to see him having a ball like he did on Boston Legal, especially after working through whatever the heck was going on when he guested on Season 8 of The Office. I like to think that he shaved his head as some sort of post-Office cleansing ritual. As a character, Red could have been successful with a different actor in the role, but he wouldn't have the same level of smug satisfaction and random moments of humanity without Spader. I won't be surprised when Spader gets nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes for his work here, tough competition be damned.
The Blacklist isn't the Greatest Thing Ever, but it's the kind of show that NBC can try to build around, and the kind of show that the broadcast networks do pretty well. While it doesn't yet compare to the other good new drama of the season—Fox's Sleepy Hollow—it's not as far off as you might imagine. Shows like this can survive during boring procedural stories or dry periods for the ongoing story if the leads are strong. And while The Blacklist still has some work to do to get there, it's on the right track. If you ditched the show after the pilot or never watched at all, now's the time to jump in. It'll be worth it.
Have you kept up with The Blacklist? What's your opinion of the show thus far?
AIRED ON 5/12/2014
Season 1 : Episode 22