If you haven’t seen NBC’s “The Blacklist,” here’s the premise: Up and coming FBI Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) is about to start an exciting new phase of her career on a special task force, but her first day on the job is interrupted when Raymond Reddington (James Spader), former G-man and wanted fugitive turns himself in. He’s wanted for crimes against just about everyone, but he’s got a list of people worse than he is, and he’s willing to share it. But only with Lizzie.
She doesn’t know him, doesn’t know why he’s chosen her. So they lock him up in a box in a warehouse, like Dr. Lecter, and send Lizzie down to play Clarice. Red’s proposition is simple. He’ll give them the names, one by one and they’ll catch the bad guys. He gets immunity. Simple. The FBI balks. Bad things happen. Red preens. Lizzie gets angry. Her husband looks longingly at babies. The FBI relents. Things blow up. The episode draws to a close and Red tells Lizzie to take a look at her home life, because damn, girl, maybe things aren’t what they seem.
It’s a fun set up, but nothing that would seem to justify the approximately zillion dollars Netflix just spent to acquire the streaming rights. So, what makes this series worth the money? It’s no “Breaking Bad,” but it’s mad fun. Here’s why.
1. James Spader as Red
This one’s cake. Spader is having a riotous, perhaps unlawful, amount of fun chewing the scenery as devious, dubious, ultra-charming, ultra-conniving Raymond “Red” Reddington. When he’s on screen, you forget just how dumb some of the set-up is. In fact, you forget all sense of morality, because even when he does terrible things (shooting people, lying to people, killing people with pillows, breaking into houses, manipulating everything with a pulse, being himself), he’s just so much more interesting than anything else happening around him. He preens, and wears hats to cover his baldness, waistcoats to cover his paunch, and smiles just like Steff from “Pretty in Pink,” like he’s still 22 and smarmy handsome and destined for a coke overdose. You’d tell him anything. You know you would.
He is also, inexplicably, staying at someone’s fancy house in Washington D.C. with paintings and tea services and a moody, deadly, multi-ethnic team of folks who make you think that for all the fucked up stuff Red had surely done, he’s maybe done some terrible stuff to make some folks’ lives better too. Plus, he has his own plane.
2. Kill your darlings
Think “Game of Thrones” is the only show willing to wipe out major cast members? Think again. By the end of Season 1, less than half of the original cast is left standing. It is glorious. It means that the show understands its endgame — namely, keeping Red front and center — but none of the deaths feel unearned. Surprisingly, they make sense in the context of the mythology the show has created. There’s internal logic in this highly illogical romp.
3. Compelling female characters and characters of color
So, hopefully, Megan Boone will do that thing that David Boreanaz did when he became a star on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — namely, learn how to act beyond pained facial expressions. But despite Boone’s woodenness, it is intriguing to have a female protagonist who has a home life, career ambitions and undecided feelings on the issue of reproduction.
Also, Parminder Nagra as Meera Malik is a far better actress, and an excellent addition to the team, and her backstory is effortlessly a part of her character. We never learn much more about her than that she is competent, connected, and has a child, but we have a strong sense of who she is, and how that shapes her actions. Meanwhile, guest stars reflect the whole of the world’s threats — Russian, Serbian, Korean, etc — but both supporting cast and guest cast members cover the gamut of ethnicity and backgrounds. The casting is less colorblind than compellingly diverse.
4. Effortless pacing and legitimate tension
Few of the 22 episodes are wasted in terms of bigger story arc; sure, the baddies of the week aren’t always ultra-compelling, but the bigger picture builds even as the team makes its way through Red’s list. There’s little downtime while waiting for the bigger reveals — clues are offered, plots are set up and then SOMETHING HAPPENS! For example, we are given the first clue that Tom is not what he seems in the first episode, and all of the reveals that follow actually track back to that moment and those seeds of doubt.
For the HBO generation, which is used to short series where big events feel so big because of tremendous amounts of character building and set-up, it’s refreshing to have a network show focused around such a big personality that also has relentless, giddy momentum. The character development feels deserved but also happens rapidly, instead of glacially as demonstrated by other procedurals which have been on the air for approximately forever (I’m looking at you, everything with the letters C, S, I, N, L or O in the title).
You say that Lizzie’s husband is a bad guy? No no, we see quite clearly that he’s just a nice schlubby school teacher who wants a baby. What? He’s been lying all this time? Wait, are you telling me that Lizzie’s father is not her father? No!! Of course he’s not. Plus, there’s a whole slew of muddled trust issues between Red and Lizzie. She remains dubious of him. He remains a mystery. And the trust instilled in him is always at risk of being the dumbest choice in the history of government choices. As it should be.
6. Guest stars!
Isabella Rossellini, on TV again (and not as a whale vagina). Jennifer Ehle as Red’s betraying love interest. Alan Alda, Linus Roach, Robert Sean Leonard, Peter Stromare, Tom Noonan (who must be tired of playing byzantine killers by now), Dianne Weist and Susan Blommaert (notable to some as the snake lady on that “X-Files” episode) as a “cleaner.” And that’s just last season — Mary Louise Parker and Paul Reubens are signed up for Season 2 already.
7. Gleeful, byzantine, “Alias”-like excursions to exotic ballrooms
If you missed seeing mildly incompetent government officials getting away with absurd feats of danger and intrigue, and taking transportation that moves at truly science-fictiony speeds to exotic locations, this show is for you. John Eisendrath, who helped helm “Alias,” is one of the executive producers, so presumably he’s brought the lessons learned on that series to bear here. It shows.
8. Conspiracies, mysterious backstories, and consequences
So many conspiracies. Alan Alda is in charge of some of them. No one is who they seem. Who is Red? Who is Lizzie, really? What happened to her family? Who are the moles, and who are they spying for? WE DON’T KNOW. We will find out. Why did Red leave the FBI to become the person he is now? Why does he have a list, and why is he doling out this information? Is it just to keep himself safe? To keep Lizzie safe? Why? The show has given us enough reveals to lead us to believe we will actually learn this information!
Also, if you do something bad to Red, Red will find you. His morality is his own, and it’s flexible, but it’s also absolute. Meanwhile, Lizzie does not like it when you lie to her, and watching her steel her resolve and actually turn into a bad-ass? So incredibly satisfying. The bad guys are very bad, and they do really dumb things — people get hurt and people die.
9. Baroque characters who do terrible things
There was a bad guy who buried people with oxygen masks and newspapers. Another one who changes DNA and faces. A man who convinces people to kill themselves so their loved ones will get the insurance money. A “judge” who judges other judges who have wrongly convicted people. Raymond Reddington.
10. Character growth
Each character develops, forward and backwards and sideways. Tom slowly reveals his deception. Lizzie moves from newly minted profiler to bad ass. Red… continues to delight. Ressler, Lizzie’s stiff as a board partner, gets a personality, a personal life, and the two of them began to form a genuine friendship. The pacing of the season focuses more on momentum than strong character beats, but since the show is so intensely driven by the force of Red’s personality, the character growth becomes an important part of audience buy-in. It will be exciting to see what next season brings on this front.
11. Did we mention James Spader?
There are billboards and bus ads all over Los Angeles with Spader/Red on covers of fake magazines, because he is the show, he is the cover, and he justifies the whole damn thing. There’s this amazing smarmy, truthful charm he exhibits, this way he shifts his face around in any scene that elevates the whole damned plate of ridiculous. You watch, you know it’s unbelievable, you know it’s unfulfilling cake. But then he looks at someone, and you see Red’s ACTUAL history there on his face, and it makes up for just how hard Megan Boone is working to appear genuine, and just how silly some of the plots are, because at the center is this guy who was good, and then something terrible happened, so he became bad. Or maybe he was always bad. Where he is now is a mystery, but it’s an island he’s built for himself and we want to be on it.
The second season of “The Blacklist” premieres September 22 on NBC.