It was an unusual day this Saturday in that I had nothing at all to do; most of my weekends are totally booked up and the few weekends that I don’t have much going on are the result of a concerted effort to give myself a break. That wasn’t the case this last Saturday; I had kept my calendar open, but it was in the hopes of having plans to do something to celebrate my birthday. I was going to be out of town on my actual birthday (Sunday) so I wanted to make sure to have some free time in case anyone wanted to do something, since the next free weekend on my calendar may very well be in December. Sadly, despite many inquiries as to when I might be around, I wound up with an empty calendar. An interview that I had recently caught with James Spader on The Tonight Show had put his television show The Blacklist on my radar and this seemed as good a time as any to give the show a try – especially since the entire first season was currently streaming on Netflix. The buzz around The Blacklist has generally been pretty good and with the second season debuting tonight the chatter around the show has only begun to intensify. So I curled up on the couch and started working my way through the first season, prepared to be dazzled.
I got through six episodes on Saturday and I can honestly say I have no idea what all the fuss is about. Overall, I thought that The Blacklist was pretty mediocre. I’m not sure if this show did so well simply because last season was a pretty abysmal fall TV class, but I didn’t see much here that elevates the show above your run of the mill procedurals. I am fully aware that I am not in step with the masses on this count – shows like the CSI franchises and Criminal Minds are ridiculously popular, but I find them cursory and boring. I think I was expecting more from The Blacklist than just the criminal of the week.
The basic premise of The Blacklist surrounds the decision of a notorious former government agent turned criminal, Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), to turn himself to the FBI. A wanted fugitive, Reddington has an intriguing offer to make them – he will help them bring down some of the most dangerous criminals and terrorists in the world, most of whom are unknown to the FBI. In exchange, Reddington wants two things: immunity and to only work with brand new FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). There is a connection between Red and Keen that only he is aware of; Red also sheds light on the fact that Keen’s husband (Ryan Eggold) may not be who he says he is.
The obvious bright spot on The Blacklist should come as no surprise – its star, James Spader, is just a force of nature. Whenever he is on the screen, things instantly get 100 times more interesting. The man has such charm and magnetism that you can’t take your eyes off him. He has that perfect mix of smarm and humor and his delivery of even the most routine line instantly elevates it. Spader is always solid and his presence on The Blacklist was admittedly the only reason that I was even mildly interested in tuning in. I’ve enjoyed him in both movies and on the small screen; Boston Legal was not a perfect show, but he and William Shatner were just so good together that whatever issues I had with the series were obscured. Spader has tremendous range; he can be terrifying one moment and then drop some spot on deadpan humor the next. The man can really do it all and The Blacklist is no different. I would have been perfectly content if they had done a bottle episode where Spader’s character was trying on hats. He can make anything compelling.
Unfortunately, the other lead of The Blacklist – Megan Boone – has all the charisma of a wet blanket. She’s just not good, a fact that would be pretty obvious regardless but is put into laser focus when she’s on screen with Spader. He can act circles around her without even trying so it’s painful to see scenes where he is the only person keeping things afloat while Boone stares and blinks a lot. The idea that she is supposed to be a rookie can account for some of the actress’ flaws, but not all of them. If anything, in the six episodes that I watched her acting only seemed to get worse, not better. My best guess is that NBC spent so much money locking down Spader to star in the series that they had to cut the budget elsewhere and get less experienced and seasoned actors to support him. Unfortunately, that decision really shows in the final product. There is a discernible drop in quality whenever Spader is not in a scene. I’m sure that they think they are telling an exciting story, but if Spader is absent I find myself wondering when he’ll turn up again (and what he’ll be wearing) rather than paying any sort of attention to the show. It doesn’t help matters that the FBI agents are generally depicted as not being all that great at their jobs; I get that the vibe that they are going for is that Spader is the smartest guy in the room, which they should be able to depict without dumbing down everyone else on the show. I feel like the entire storyline of the spouse of law enforcement actually having ties to bad guys has been done before on other shows/movies and unless executed really well, it doesn’t particularly reflect well on the characters that they didn’t suss out that something was amiss on their own.
I’m not far enough into the series to definitively say whether things improve – it sometimes takes a while for a show to find its footing – but the writing and plotting on the show are not particularly subtle. The idea that Red and Keen may have a biological connection has been present since the very first episode and is something that they have not been deft in hinting at throughout the other episodes. This is problematic for two reasons: either they are connected and these hints that they are dropping are not all that tough to deifier or they are trying way too hard to make us think that’s what is going on, only to misdirect at a later date. So either the big reveal – whenever that comes – is not going to be at all surprising or is going to feel like a major cheat because they have been putting too much energy into the redirect. I don’t mind trying to divert attention or mislead the audience, but it has to be done well. To date, that simply hasn’t been the case with The Blacklist. Instead of delicate storytelling, The Blacklist plods along with the grace of an elephant.
It is a true testament to James Spader that I’ve committed myself to finishing out the first season; I’m desperately hoping that the show finds it stride in the near future and becomes a better show – not only for my sake but for his. He’s so enjoyable that I’m willing to stick out the remaining 16 episodes that I have left; it’s worth a few delightful moments with Spader to ignore the rest of the show that surrounds him. I’m willing to bet that he’s the only reason that people are still excited about this show. There are enough procedurals to choose from that without his magnetism I don’t know that there would be much to distinguish The Blacklist from other programs.
I sincerely hope that The Blacklist proves me wrong and blossoms into a better acted and executed show, but that may simply not be in the cards. The show is doing very well in the ratings and has been a very big hit for NBC, so there is really no incentive to fix whatever is broken. Maybe this is a show that is simply not for me and I move on. I do think it only fair to give the show a full 22-episode run to convince me one way or another exactly what kind of show this is going to be. But unless there is some sort of course change on the horizon – or Boone starts taking some acting lessons – this may be a one and done series for me. I’ll have to feed my love of Spader by watching old episodes of Boston Legal or re-watching Secretary for the millionth time.
The second season of The Blacklist debuts tonight at 10 pm (ET) on NBC. The first season is available for streaming on Netflix.