The Blacklist - Season Pilot

NBC has a new drama called THE BLACKLIST. In the big opening scene, super criminal Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington (James Spader, Boston Legal), formerly a federal agent, walks into the FBI and surrenders himself. The deal? He’ll help stop a terrorist attack and saves lives, but he’ll only talk to brand new profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone, My Bloody Valentine), who hasn’t even left home for her first day of work at the bureau yet.

On one hand, THE BLACKLIST’s “Pilot” is stepped in mystery. Why did Red leave the FBI? Why has he returned now? What does he want from them? What are his personal motivations for helping out? Why is Liz so special?

On the other hand, this scenario seems completely familiar. It’s like THE BLACKLIST is trying too hard to make itself build tension, and it’s using several other shows’ playbooks to do so. Yes, there are definitely some unanswered questions, but they are built to in a very inauthentic way, feeling forced. The twists in the episode seem predictable or unearned. This is not the set up for TV’s next great drama, unfortunately.

Part of this may be because Red seems way too smooth an operator. He allows himself to be taken into custody multiple times in the “Pilot,” but never gives off the vibe that he’s been caught and is helpless. In fact, the FBI doesn’t take for granted their control over him either, always acting like he can best them at any time, and scrambling to keep up. He’s six steps ahead constantly, and the agents in charge of him are all much dumber than he is, inept at doing their jobs.

I’m not sure how we’re supposed to get behind the “good” characters here. Liz is shrewd enough at first, until developments concerning her husband, Tom (Ryan Eggold, 90210), make her look unobservant. Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff, Homeland) has been hunting Red for years without any luck. Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix, Dollhouse), the boss, acts confident enough, but has no reason to, considering events in the “Pilot.”

To be sure, Red himself is an intriguing character. That can be chalked up to Spader, who chews through each scene with aplomb, enjoying being nearly omnipotent. Spader is fantastic in pretty much anything he is in, and this is a great role for him, a culmination of his previous work into a superior human being, earned through much effort. He is a joy to watch.

The problem is, we need someone equal to Red to go toe to toe with him. Liz will presumably be that person, but is nowhere close to that right now. Every super villain needs an arch nemesis; otherwise, there is no real threat and no true stakes. If Red gets to do whatever the hell he wants, and no one credibly stands in his way, where’s the drama and the story?

The other thing THE BLACKLIST has going against it is that it very clearly is a crime procedural. Red may have a larger mission, but it’s likely to be doled out in very small pieces as the team goes after one person at a time. Every premiere season I lament this type of show, and there are always a number of new entries that qualify for derision because of it. In a golden age of television writing, procedurals are lazy and boring, and while there is a certain segment of viewership that enjoys them, it’s not high quality stuff.

I’m not even convinced THE BLACKLIST will appeal to this segment, though, because of Red. He’s a well-performed part, but he doesn’t fit into those easy boxes that most procedurals check when defining characters. He’s too complex for the series he’s in, and that may be enough to kill THE BLACKLIST before it even gets started. Unless some major retooling is done, or the FBI agent characters show some rapid growth, THE BLACKLIST seems a doomed project.

THE BLACKLIST premieres Monday, September 23rd at 10 p.m. ET.