TV Review: The Blacklist

I am a guy who watches a lot of television. I try to follow a ton of shows, via watching them when they air, catching up with them online a week or two later, or marathoning entire seasons in one sitting. And I’ll be honest: the sheer variety and amount of TV shows out there has also turned me into a bit of a snob. I follow around a dozen or so drama shows pretty devoutly, but all of them are at least on basic cable channels, if not premium channels or alternative content providers like Netflix. I firmly believe that there is value to the kinds of procedurals that broadcast networks put out: sometimes people don’t want to spend hours mentally unpacking or recovering from the events of an episode, and sometimes people just want the comfort of watching characters they’ve come to care about solve a problem. But the fact remains that I’ve grown accustomed to a certain level of narrative freedom and complexity that usually comes with cable television, and is a bit more rare on network TV.

This brings us to The Blacklist, NBC’s new thriller-ish drama series starring the inimitable James Spader. Spader plays Raymond Reddington, a criminal mastermind and wanted fugitive who surrenders himself to the FBI and offers to sell out the international criminals he’s made a career out of aiding and abetting. His deal is not without caveats, though, chief among them that he will only work with rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Keen and FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) are understandably wary of this arrangement, but Reddington offers enough evidence that they manage to form an uneasy alliance.

It’s not a bad premise, and it specifically brings to mind The Silence of the Lambs. But, and here’s my TV snobbery coming through, it all feels very… network. Spader is a delight to watch, but Reddington is little more than a plot device, at least in the pilot. They’re clearly trying to evoke the kinds of dark, complicated masterminds we’ve seen in Dexter, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad, but without motivations or other humanizing elements, Reddington comes off like a cliche. Boone is fine as the driven-but-untested Keen, and Lennix brings his characteristic stoicism. There’s some good banter, and a couple of decently tense scenes early on. But there’s also a lot of slam-bang action that feels much more in service to cutting good promos than to the actual story (a bomb threat towards the end feels particularly empty). This kind of show I think would be much more powerful if it maintained a level of sinister tension for the first episode or two, rather than pushing the TV action angle.

All in all, it’s a decent but unremarkable show. There are lots of bits sprinkled throughout the premiere that suggest greater mysteries and arcs, and Spader sells what he can well. Ultimately, I think it’ll come down to how the show develops, and whether they prioritize cheap twists and action or fleshed-out characters and motivations, that will make the difference. I can appreciate playing it safe, but as much as I might turn my nose up at network television, it did give us LOST, 24, and other dramas that pushed the envelope in various ways. I’m holding out hope that The Blacklist can grow into a thoughtful, engaging show in its own right, and not just a late attempt at the cashing in on the anti-hero trend.

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