There will be spoilers, guys. For this show and a bunch of shows it cribs from.
As I watched the pilot for The Blacklist, I was amazed at how many borrowed elements were going into the makeup of this show. Then the main character straight-up pulled a prop from Revenge up from the floorboards and I was preeetty sure someone was punking me.
I mean, it’s a wooden box with a mysterious brand engraved on the lid – a brand (in this case a scar, rather than a tattoo) also found on the heroine’s wrist. I mean, that is one of the Big Things on Revenge. In the floorboards and everything. That is just nuts.
Of course, the box leads to a revelation that the heroine’s seemingly nerdy, down-to-earth husband (you know, TV-nerdy, because he’s a super-handsome guy they slapped a pair of glasses and a thrift-store jacket on and called it a day) may be More Than He Seems, and if you weren’t watching Orphan Black I’ll just go
ahead and tell you [SPOILER] Paul isn’t quite as boring as he seems (also, Fringe).
But the meat of the show is the James Spader as a criminal mastermind so villainishly capable he has a Joker-esque nickname – “the Concierge of Crime” – and is promptly locked up in a sliding mechanical cell usually reserved for Magneto.
At first it seems like pretty hilarious overkill, a show just looking to get some interesting visuals in before Spader’s inevitably just sitting around in conference rooms, but his character’s later displays of catlike prowess and borderline-supernatural abilities to be wherever he needs to be makes it seem that the FBI is probably right to treat him like he has superpowers.
His character’s real superpower is simply James Spader’s sonorous voice, always giving the impression that he knows more than everyone else, and to start with he insists on only speaking with a fresh-faced FBI profiler and … OK, it’s basically Silence of the Lambs, with a dollop of Alias, and in virtually every way inferior to NBC’s ACTUAL OFFICIAL (and far, far superior) Hannibal series.
Unfortunately, Spader’s performance doesn’t have to do much to overpower everyone around him, but the Fresh-Faced Profiler Lady isn’t done any favors in her introductory scene.
Now, I’ve always been fond of the Hitchcock axiom that you can immediately connect an audience to a character if you show that character being good at her job. Here is how FBI agent Liz Keene is introduced:
Oversleeping for her first day at her new job as a profiler because the alarm reset during the night. At which point she and her husband scramble around the house getting dressed, shoving toast into their mouths and calling each other “Babe” so frequently it’s like the writers never saw that one episode of The Office to let them know that is the mark of a supremely annoying couple. Then she steps into a puddle of dog pee, tells the dog “Stop peeing,” but at no point is this poor guy let out into the backyard. The couple also banters about their first meeting at the adoption agency because that is definitely a meeting a real person would schedule on the same day as the first day of a new job.
Finally they reach the front door and Husband compliments her on how nicely put together she looks considering they just woke up seven minutes ago, and there you have it. In your introduction to the character, the thing you know she does well is Get Dressed Quickly.
(And yeah sure, she might look nice – she is a woman on TV – but jeez, there was no shower involved, how does she smell?)
Anyway, then we get to her in the office where Boss Harry Lennix (playing the Boss Harry Lennix role) pulls an amusing trick to get through exposition a little more quickly than normal: He asks Liz to profile…HERSELF!
So the next minute is just Liz telling us the things in her character sheet. What really stands out, though, is that she says because she can be assertive, she’s called “Sir” and is thought of as a “bitch” by her peers. But throughout the episode, she’s really nice, and outside of the Fellow Agent Who’s Kind Of A Jerk (hey, remember Mike from Homeland? Here he is), everyone’s also pretty nice to her.
It’s like they wanted a character like Sonya from The Bridge, but accidentally wrote Alias’s Sidney Bristow instead, right down to the sitting in her living room crying with a glass of wine at the end of a hard day.
Anyway, so there’s some chasing, some double-crossing, some pretty severe acts of stabbing, a child’s put in danger (because “Child bonds with main character” is also a pretty handy cheat), there’s a statement of weekly ‘Let’s catch some hidden bad guys’ premise, and vague hints of mystery (who’s her husband REALLY? Who’s her long-lost dad if it’s not Spader because these particular hints are dropped like anvils?) to hook anyone who wants a bit of serialization.
And then, just to show you how smart James Spader is, he just goes ahead and NAMES THE SHOW for everyone. “Let’s call it ‘the blacklist,’ that sounds exciting!” he says. Literally. In the dialogue.
That’s the show in a nutshell. It knows you’re here for Spader. Spader knows you’re here for Spader (because he can SEE YOU OUT THERE, people of America). And it knows you probably liked all its other bits from other shows you’ve watched in the recent past. If the show can do something useful with all those borrowed bits, there might be something watchable here. But probably not until mid-season.
In any event, outside of, well, Hannibal, it’s the best NBC pilot I’ve seen in years, but that’s mostly because NBC’s pilots have been mostly awful for a decade straight. Such is the power of James Spader.