by Deborah Harter Williams
James Spader is Raymond Reddington, former government agent turned criminal mastermind. After 25 years, he surrenders himself to the FBI, offering a deal. He will help capture some of the world’s most dangerous criminals and terrorists, but will only work with a junior profiler named Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). Reddington is a complete stranger to Elizabeth, but upon their first meeting hints that he knows a lot about her and her family.
Liz and husband Tom, a bespectacled schoolteacher, are in the midst of trying to adopt. He plays the warm and understanding husband, as Liz tries to balance her home life with making an impression at her new job, frequently having to cancel appointments at the last minute.
In the first episode Tom is attacked by an unknown assailant in their home. Awash in tears, guilt and despair, as he fights for life, Liz tries to clean the blood from the floor. In so doing she discovers a box under the floorboards with a cache of money, a gun and multiple passports with Tom’s picture. One moment you are sure Tom is a good guy, the next that he is possibly a double agent or thirdly, that he is being set-up. Meanwhile, Reddington, self-avowed bad guy, shows a great gentleness to Liz, luring her in to confiding to him.
The twists are compelling and the writing first rate. Reddington’s dialogue is particularly fun. While the FBI folk are given to saying things like “That’s not going to happen” and “You’re not telling me everything,” Reddington replies, “I’m never telling you everything.”
Spader is delicious to watch. He struts right up to the line of excessiveness, perches there for a moment and then tiptoes back. His sotto voce comments are delivered with precision and wry humor. “Hello Clarice,” he says in the first episode as he emerges from a cage that is clearly meant to reference the Hannibal Lechter films. He shifts from menace to annoyance to sincerity with great ease. You can see Liz getting sucked in, in spite of her wariness. His omniscience of what is going on and the motives of the players, constantly call into question how much he knows versus how much is actually being controlled by him. He is the Chess Master.
Boone has the challenge of not disappearing from the screen when Spader is on. She starts out small, a cipher to be decoded, but as the early episodes progress she shows a range and subtlety of emotions from bravery to intelligence, and vulnerability to cunning. She plays off Spader in a compelling duet.
The show has cinematic production values–helicopter shots, a tanker at sea, a port scene filled with containers and chase scenes are skillfully choreographed and shot. The first episode opens with the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil” (an expensive license fee). Money is being spent and it shows.
But this is not just another shoot-em-up, car crash, testosterone driven caper. The female characters are represented with complexity and style as both heroines and villains, featuring some big name actresses like Jane Alexander and Isabella Rossellini in guest roles. In one episode Liz and her woman partner–two women who could pass for suburban moms–run down the street with guns after purposely ramming the bad guy’s truck, and they’re not wearing cleavage-baring tank tops and 4-inch heels. The series passes the Bechdel Test – there are plenty of women characters with actual names who appear in scenes together and don’t just talk about their relationships with men.
My only negative in watching this show is the Grue factor. In the first couple of episodes, right on schedule in the last third of the show–someone would get tortured with a lingering close up of the blood, knife wound or broken bone–gratuitous. Might be producer shorthand for, we can be as raw as cable or feature films. This seems to be based on the assumption that the 18-49 audience likes things with an amped-up gore.
For me, I’ll watch it if it advances the plot. For example, to demonstrate that a character has a condition that makes him feel no pain they show him sewing up his own chest wound, but if I have to look away from the screen three times or more, my attention to the plot and suspension of disbelief is broken.
Another motivation for the enhanced gore might be to make sure that the evil and threat of the terrorist/assassin is made emotionally significant. Ultimately the procedural element–tracking the Blacklistee of the week–is not as gripping as the question of trust and betrayal between Liz and Reddington and Liz and her husband.
That’s the drama that makes it work! Blacklist airs NBC Mondays at 10 p.m. and some episodes can be found on their website.
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