December 3, 2013

THE SKED Fall Finale Review: “The Blacklist”


We’ll find out in just a few weeks exactly how big a hit NBC’s THE BLACKLIST really is, thanks to the network’s announcement that the show will air in January for the first time outside the protective shadow of The Voice as its lead-in.  Until now, it’s been the breakout hit of the fall, sometimes the week’s highest-rated 10PM show on any broadcast network.  However its ratings may end up, tonight’s fall finale before that January return marked what a strange and incoherent–although entertaining–show it’s become since its pilot just 2 1/2 months ago.

The Blackout pilot presented a relatively standard example of what’s become the new subgenre of procedurals with a twist (other examples include Person of Interest and Almost Human), a framework that allows for a weekly crime story to be solved while gradually presenting one or two larger underlying mysteries.  In this case, the situation had Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals as an infamous intermediary between other wrongdoers, suddenly surrendering himself to Bureau custody, willing to confess everything he knew about all his confederates–with one condition.  His nonnegotiable demand was to provide his information to one agent and one agent only, brand-new criminal profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).  The pilot treated Red as a Hannibal Lecter type without the violence, kept under tight security but a moneyman rather than a dangerous man of action, and the idea seemed to be that as in Silence of the Lambs, Elizabeth would get her weekly assignment from him, along with interspersed advice along the way, and she’d go out and track down that episode’s target.  Meanwhile, the bigger puzzles would be just why Red was so fixated on her, and also what was going on with Elizabeth’s seemingly mild-mannered husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), after she found a cache of passports, cash and a gun under their floorboards.

The network and producers seem to have decided after the pilot that the show desperately needed more Spader and a super-pump of action and violence.  So almost immediately, Red was no longer in FBI custody, and was instead allowed to roam wherever he wanted in the world (on his own private jet), with a computer chip in his neck proving almost pointless in keeping tabs on him.  In addition, far from being an mere illicit businessman, Red was suddenly a neo-James Bond, murdering people in almost every episode (sometimes quite graphically) when he wasn’t engaging in chase scenes or himself being tortured.  It was all very colorful, and obviously it’s been working for viewers, but it makes almost no sense, since the whole idea of Red’s character was that he was the calm middleman whom everyone trusted, and thus he knew all their secrets, while the swank killer we have instead would never be trusted by anyone.  Meanwhile, the show has teased viewers to the very brink of revealing that Red is Elizabeth’s biological father without quite getting there (he flatly denied it in tonight’s episode, but he’s proven so untrustworthy that the denial doesn’t mean much), and Tom has been under suspicion of… something, and then not, and now is again.

To all this oddness, tonight’s fall finale, written by Co-Executive Producers J.R. Orci and Lukas Reiter, and directed by Michael Watkins, added a “game-changer” twist that abandoned even more of the show’s initial concept.  It picked up immediately from last week’s action-packed cliffhanger (an episode co-written and directed by movie guy Joe Carnahan, who had directed the pilot), with a former colleague trying to get into the Lecter-like glass cage at the FBI’s hidden stronghold where Red was unreachable along with stalwart (and shot) Agent Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), who will probably become a romantic interest for Elizabeth sometime in the future (we found out tonight that he’s single, with an ex-girlfriend as his Bureau next-of-kin).  Red voluntarily left the cell to save Elizabeth, and was abducted by his old enemy, who brought him to the show’s new Big Bad, a shadowy cabal type played by Alan Alda.  Whoever his group represents has been surveilling the Bureau with a mole in the squad, and as the episode ended, Red was on the run, the Bureau was on his trail, and Elizabeth had just gotten a call from him not just denying he was her father but telling her to watch out for her husband.

The advantage a show like The Blacklist has over one like Homeland is that no one really expects it to make logical or emotional sense, so while we parse through every plot twist of Homeland and shake our heads dismissively if we find one unconvincing, Blacklist can do pretty much what it wants, as long as it provides us with Spader doing his soft-spoken hammy smartest-guy-in-the-room thing and plenty of over-the-top bang-bang–which it pretty reliably has.  The one serious limitation Blacklist has–and it’s something that hasn’t been solved since the pilot–is Boone as the object of Red’s obsession.  The show has tried hard to turn her into a kickass heroine, but she’s as bland as when she started, and the series loses energy whenever she’s at its center.  Partly as a consequence of that, the story about whether her husband is to be trusted (almost surely, he’s not) has never caught fire.  Blacklist also has to steer clear of its occasional over-earnestness, as when Red stares wet-eyed at some fragment of his still-unexplained past.  True emotion isn’t a good color for this show.

Although as noted, Blacklist will face its real test shortly after the new year, so far it’s looked like what Revolution and Smash weren’t, a hit that can build off its The Voice launching pad and provide some much needed seeding for the rest of NBC’s schedule.  If it accomplishes that, no one will care very much that objectively speaking, it’s little more than a shaky vehicle for the James Spader juggernaut.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."