October 1, 2013

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “The Blacklist”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on THE BLACKLIST:  Raymond Reddington (James Spader), debonair Public Enemy #1, has turned himself in to the FBI, willing to surrender and spill everything he knows about all his criminal associates around the world, bit by bit.  His condition:  he’ll only talk to fresh-faced profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), although as far as anyone–including Keen–knows, Reddington has no connection to her at all.  But she has secrets as-yet unrevealed, and she’s not the only one.  As the authorities warily agree to Reddington’s deal, he gives her information leading to her discovery that her seemingly mild-mannered schoolteacher husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), put into a coma during an attack during the pilot, has apparently hidden a cache of fake passports, cash and a gun underneath the floorboards of their apartment.

Episode 2:  The Blacklist pilot pretty well established the template for series episodes, but the first fresh hour, written by series creator Jon Bokenkamp, made a couple of important changes.  Clearly responding to the fact that the pilot’s entertainment value soared whenever James Spader was on screen, and plunged when FBI agent Keen was running around on her own, Raymond Reddington is no longer in any sort of meaningful captivity.  With a GPS chip implanted in his shoulder and a personal security team that includes torture-prone CIA agent Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra), Reddington can pretty much roam around as he likes, which permits Spader to appear in much more of the action, definitely a smart move.  (Since he’s always five steps ahead of his minders, it’s all but certain that Reddington will know how to get around that GPS chip when he needs to, and it won’t come as much of a surprise if the grim CIA agent is actually a secret ally.)  Also, the episode edged Reddington even closer to Hannibal Lecter status, when rather than lead the government to the arrest of an assassin whose target was a human rights activist played by Isabella Rossellini, he actually engineered her death–to be sure, she turned out to be a human trafficker, hiding behind a humanitarian facade, but the fact that Reddington is now on record as being capable of murder, however justified, raises the series stakes.

Boosting Reddington’s presence and deadliness are good fixes, and Spader inhales his hammy supercriminal lines like the aroma of a gourmet meal.  The show is very slick, tonight with a well-choreographed escape for Reddington from a Montreal cafe and noteworthy use of licensed songs on the soundtrack.  (The episode was directed by Jace Alexander, whose mother Jane made an appearance as a senior Justice Department official.)   Blacklist‘s problem continues to be that Keen is bland both as written and performed, and although it’s certain that we’ll find out much more about her as the series goes on (Reddington’s hint this week was that everything she believes about her life is false, so maybe they’re all in The Matrix), there’s little to keep us interested in her until then.  Other supporting performers like Diego Klattenhoff and Harry Lennix as exasperated FBI agents don’t do much more than sputter and get one-upped by Spader.

The Blacklist got off to a sensational start in the ratings last week, riding its lead-in from The Voice to a 3.8; if it can stay anywhere near that number, NBC will have a major hit.  The show delivers much in the mode of a CBS procedural, with a quickly resolved criminal-of-the-week dispatched while a larger mythology story is very gradually told.  In this case, the show also has the not-so-secret weapon of Spader, who has a role that suits his brand of self-satisfied, ambiguously droll malevolence just about perfectly.  There’s nothing here to compare to the deeper pleasures of more ambitious TV dramas, but Blacklist seems to have a handle on the show it’s trying to be, and especially with its cushy timeslot, it should satisfy viewers for a while at least.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

PILOT + 1:  The More Spader the Better


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."