Review: The Blacklist 1×1 (NBC/Sky Living)

What we all expected Hannibal to be like


In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Living. Starts 4 October

Ah, James Spader. Star of the original Stargate movie and Sex, Lies and Videotape, he was the thinking heterosexual woman’s crush of the early 90s, the sensitive, hot intellectual actor it was okay to collect a sticker album for.

But time marched on and thanks to a process called ‘Shatnerisation’, he stopped being the subtle, sophisticated actor he once was, preferring instead to ham it up something chronic on The Practice and Boston Legal. It’s therefore somewhat appropriate that for his return to mainstream TV, he’s picked one of the least subtle roles available to him this season: ‘the concierge of crime’ Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington on NBC’s The Blacklist.

Reddington is a Moriarty, a man other criminals come to to organise their plots, put them in touch with other criminals and get them what they need. But one day, he mysteriously turns up at the FBI’s headquarters, voluntarily surrendering himself to the authorities. He then offers up the name of a criminal and agrees to help the FBI catch him on one condition: that he only speak to FBI rookie Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Why her and what he’s doing are even bigger mysteries, but before the end of the first episode Reddington is offering his continuing help to catch everyone on his ‘blacklist’ of big bads, providing he gets to stick with Keen.

And while that’s all as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s actually a surprisingly enjoyable hour and Spader, despite being the headline act with the spotlight firmly on him, curiously decides to diet his performance and reduce the ham. The hat doesn’t help though.

About
For decades, ex-government agent Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader, “The Office,” “Boston Legal”) has been one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives. Brokering shadowy deals for criminals across the globe, Red was known by many as “The Concierge of Crime.” Now, he’s mysteriously surrendered to the FBI with an explosive offer: He will help catch a long-thought-dead terrorist, Ranko Zamani, under the condition that he speaks only to Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone, “Law & Order: Los Angeles”), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. For Liz, it’s going to be one hell of a first day on the job.

What follows is a twisting series of events as the race to stop a terrorist begins. What are Red’s true intentions? Why has he chosen Liz, a woman with whom he seemingly has no connection? Does Liz have secrets of her own? Zamani is only the first of many on a list that Red has compiled over the years: a “blacklist” of politicians, mobsters, spies and international terrorists. He will help catch them all… with the caveat that Liz continues to work as his partner. Red will teach Liz to think like a criminal to “see the bigger picture” – whether she wants to or not.

Also starring are Diego Klattenhoff (“Homeland”), Harry Lennix (“Man of Steel”) and Ryan Eggold (“90210”). Jon Bokenkamp (“The Call,” “Taking Lives”), John Eisendrath (“Alias”), John Davis (“Predator,” “I, Robot,” “Chronicle”) and John Fox serve as executive producers. The pilot was directed by Joe Carnahan (“The A-Team,” “The Grey”). “The Blacklist” is a production of Sony Pictures Television and Davis Entertainment.

Is it any good?
There are plenty of elements of it that are good, but as with all hybrid serial-episodic formats based around a mystery element (cf LostJohn Doe), I have reservations that by about episode five, it’s going to become mundane.

What’s good about the show is the mystery. You have no idea why Reddington is doing what he’s doing – is he actually masterminding all the criminals’ schemes, collaborating with them, or genuinely turning them? Does he have a master plan at the end of it all that will sting the FBI or is he a deep cover agent who’s finally showing the benefits of years of work? Why does he want to work with Liz – is it because she’s a rookie or because secretly she’s his daughter? What’s up with Liz’s husband and his box?

On top of that, there’s the criminals that Reddington works with – a sort of ‘international rescue’ of the criminal underworld, with Reddington able to call up a criminal with talent to help out when the FBI can’t, but always in exchange for something.

These are the things that are going to keep you tuning in every week, if you are going to watch the show at all. Because apart from Spader and these mysteries, the show doesn’t have a lot going for it. Liz might have her own mysteries, but Boone’s so mundanely shadowless, despite how she’s written, that there’s no appeal. The show needed a Yancy Butler, but got FBI Barbie instead. Whether the long-term plan is to make her more interesting as Spader turns her to the dark side or not, at the moment, she’s just there to advance the plot and emote a bit.

Then there’s the creeping suspicion that underneath all these mysteries, there’s nothing much to it. It’s criminal of the week, with Spader using his chessmaster skills and knowledge to catch the baddies while the FBI runs around with its guns. The action scenes are well done (for NBC – you can imagine CBS doing them better, simply for budgetary reasons, since Joe Carnahan directed this opening episode). There’s no fundamental USP to the rest of the cast, no skills, no personalities, no gifts that will enable them to catch the baddies. They are Spader’s pawns and that’s about it. At the moment, anyway.

There are a couple of jarring elements: even if the real FBI doesn’t have problems with women in its ranks, TV FBI seems to, with Boone’s nickname being ‘bitch’ (something referenced in the end song, oddly enough) and everyone having a problem with her ambition – that’s 20 years after Silence of the Lambs, folks, and no one gets into the FBI if they don’t have ambition. Couple that with the relentless attempts to feminise her and give her ‘work/life balance’ issues with a daft subplot about adopting a child, and the show at times feels like an apology for a woman wanting to be in law enforcement (“She may be an agent, but she’s still all woman”). Hopefully, Spader will help Liz to overcome this, which actually seems to be part of his masterplan, for some reason.

On the whole, though, this is effectively what everyone assumed Hannibal would be like, but without the cannibalism, with an arch, bon vivant mastercriminal helping the FBI while twisting them round his little finger. It’s nowhere near as good and it has the potential to get worse. But it also has the potential to get better, so let’s give a few episodes to see which way it’s going to go.