Continuing our series of shows you need to see, it’s NBC’s nutty FBI thriller, The Blacklist.
It’s quite nearly impossible to browse what’s on TV without coming across some sort of procedural drama, featuring at least one of the agencies that make up the USA’s veritable alphabet soup of law enforcement, and so it could be easy to pass up a show like The Blacklist without a second thought. It looks like another FBI drama with just a hint of a twist. Hardly worth checking out, right? Only such an evaluation could lead to missing out on what is easily one of the best shows currently on television.
The Blacklist combines everything previous spy-versus-spy mixed genre shows did right, making for a delightful blend
A quick-and-easy, spoiler-free synopsis first. Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington, played by the brilliant James Spader, was on his way to becoming an admiral in the US Navy. One Christmas Eve, without any warning, he suddenly disappeared. Word of Reddington selling US secrets and working with all sorts of unsavoury types spread quickly, and his activities earned him infamy as the Concierge of Crime (as The Napoleon of Organised Crime and The Clown Prince of Crime were both taken). The show begins, however, with Reddington turning himself in to the FBI, eager to offer up some very high profile, terribly crooked individuals – all numbered on his very own blacklist – but under very specific conditions: he’ll only speak to Special Agent Liz Keen (played by Megan Boone), a fresh-from-Quantico recruit.
The Blacklist combines everything previous spy-versus-spy mixed genre shows did right, making for a delightful blend of action, drama, suspense, comedy, and so much more. James Spader is the pillar on which this show stands strong: his Red Reddington is tremendously multifaceted, and viewers are permitted little view into the greater depths of his scheming. Spader brings out the best of a character who can be charming and caring in one moment, and manipulative and menacing only a scene later.
Spader’s performance as Red is often over-the-top, with a pretty strong nutty uncle sort of vibe at times (if, of course, one’s idea of a nutty uncle is the sort of guy who helps dismantle a corrupt adoption agency by seeking answers from a college-aged junkie). On paper it sounds silly, but in execution it works brilliantly. If it could be considered a complaint, it’s very easy to say much of the supporting cast – even Megan Boone, at times – tends to fall back as set dressing in comparison to Spader. Red, after all, is the real focus.
The Blacklist’s tendency to lead towards almost Scooby-Doo levels of nutty hijinks sets it apart from its predecessors
Each episode features a blacklister that the FBI, with Red’s help, is in pursuit of, often starting with a glimpse as to what that episode’s antagonist or antagonists do that makes them worthy of Red’s list. People usually end up dead, and suddenly the FBI is involved. Red jerks the FBI around, toying with them as the situation escalates, and inevitably the episode ends with the blacklister in custody or dead. But there’s so much inter-character drama and plenty of twists and turns that build upon this approach to each episode.
There are overarching plots involving shadowy figures, while the show’s tendency to lead towards almost Scooby-Doo levels of nutty hijinks sets it apart from predecessors like Burn Notice, which showed a similar capacity for combining elements of humour, drama, and action. Red is entirely OK with tricking the FBI, his fellow criminals, and anyone else who may provide beneficial results so long as it furthers whatever his plans happen to be at the time.
In one of the earlier episodes, Red convinces one of the blacklisters that their stronghold is clearly under surveillance, and in doing so he jeopardises the FBI agents who are there to help. The diversion, of course, acts as a part of a greater plan. It’s all part of a show that places equal value on the action, drama and humour, making The Blacklist the sort of show that’s easy to binge-watch without feeling any guilt.
As season one goes on, the supporting cast can be seen as occasionally throwaway, and Red can become a bit grating on the nerves, but this is the most intense scrutiny for a show that is so easy to get hooked on. James Spader’s immense talent, the on-screen dynamics between Liz Keen and Red, and some truly tremendous writing should give The Blacklist a strong, long-lasting life.
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All images: NBC