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THE BLACKLIST Review: “Pilot”

This review may contain some spoilers. To be fair, you probably should have considered that before clicking the link on the homepage. Not saying, but just saying.

To put it succinctly, NBC’s The Blacklist is a capable, compelling drama that keeps the action moving at the expense of character development and believability. I watched it on a tiny screen on the back of the chair in front of me on a JetBlue flight back from Boston, but I still found myself compelled to stay tuned through 6-inch tall commercials for The Voice to see where the twists and turns would take us. I could have switched over to Storage Wars at any time, but I didn’t (why is that always playing on JetBlue flights? Does A&E have any other programming?). As far as pilot episodes go, The Blacklist won’t be winning any awards. There are pacing issues galore and the sense that it might be a house of sand, but it has piqued my interest enough to tune in next week to see where this weird but slickly produced odd couple thriller goes in the episodes to come.

As expected, James Spader steals the spotlight as Red Reddington, the bastard child of late season Walter White and Robert California, with his Hannibal Lecter of Homeland Security shtick. You know how some people have resting bitch face? James Spader has resting sexual harassment eyes. Gone is the curious, nerdy spark of Stargate-era Spader. Now there are only his infinite pools of discomfort, boring a hole into your soul and making you feel like you need to take a shower (and not in a sexy way). It all works wonderfully well with his smarter-than-you criminal mastermind persona that he clearly relishes playing. He’s not flexing his muscles here — he’s just getting warmed up. Although if Ultron shows up wearing a fedora, I fucking quit.

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The show wastes no time in introducing us to its central premise. We open on James Spader walking into the FBI headquarters where he asks to see FBI Director Cooper (no, not Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan; it’s Harry Lennix) and is summarily swarmed by every Tom, Dick and Lt. Sally with a gun once his ID scan sets off dozens of internal red flags. Spader is Raymond “Red” Reddington, once a star FBI agent who went rogue and became one of the Bureau’s most wanted criminals, selling secrets to the highest bidder for the past 20 years under the moniker of the “Concierge of Crime.” Essentially, he was the Yelp of Terrorism, but it was all for a good cause. He’s spent his time on the wrong side of the law assembling what he calls “The Blacklist,” a list of the criminals the FBI doesn’t even know exist (“politicians, mobsters, hackers, spies”). These are the guys that make their Top 10 Most Wanted list nothing more than a “popularity contest” and a “PR stunt”. And now he wants to work with his onetime employers to bring the bad guys to justice. The catch? He will only speak to an unknown FBI profiler named Elizabeth Keen. Cue dramatic music.

NBC clearly has a developmental hard-on for the Hannibal Lecter novels. Just one series directly connected to the iconic franchise wasn’t enough; they wanted to invoke its essence yet again. The show clearly has its sights set on being a cocktail of Homeland and Silence of the Lambs and, for the most part, it works. Megan Boone is no Jodie Foster or Claire Danes, but she delvers a charismatic turn as Elizabeth Keen, the up-and-coming rookie profiler that Reddington hand picks to be his crime fighting conduit. She doesn’t quite entirely sell me in this pilot, but it’s a bit too early to tell whether it’s her not being up to the task or the writing not giving her enough to work with. I think we can all agree that the greatest crime is that they actually gave an FBI profiler the last name of Keen. Maybe they changed it from the original “Veryobservantowitz” at Ellis Island.

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The show covers a lot of ground in its hourlong debut, keeping the tension and action moving, but it undercuts itself by not quite earning the emotional payoffs it so clearly wants. The pilot revolves around a race against time to find a chemical weapon strapped to a little girl that is set to take out a sizable chunk of Washington, D.C.’s youthful population. The set-piece moments are effective, albeit predictable, with enough action and gunplay to keep things exciting and on edge. That being said, for a life or death situation, there’s a decided lack of stakes. It’s almost too slick for its own good, but I can appreciate their run and gun approach at trying to hook the maximum amount of viewers possible.

Perhaps the show would be wise to take notes from its narrative influences by slowing things down a little bit and taking its time. We don’t need another crime-of-the-week TV drama; there’s plenty of those already. Rather, if this can successfully flip the script on the crime procedural drama and make use of Spader’s considerable talents and its stars’ inherent likability, it has the potential to grow into something truly worthwhile. My verdict? It may not be on your Top 10 Most Wanted yet, but to let this one pass you by could be truly criminal.

Stray observations

– Bronies take note — this is how you wear a fedora. Also take note — stop wearing fedoras.
– James Spader, the only thing creepier than you is nothing.
– Lizzie’s husband (Ryan Eggold) is such an unreasonably handsome dweeb that he seems like an apocryphal Liz Lemon love interest.
– It’s always nice to see Diego Klattenhoff again. Maybe he’ll make huevos rancheros and bust out the FBI’s secret Jaeger suit that they’ve been working on. Only time will tell.
– Some of the musical choices on this show are laugh-out-loud weird. An acoustic cover of “99 Problems”? What the actual fuck? Hopefully that was just the feeling of tonal dissonance that comes with a silly song like that abruptly transitioning into local news coverage of the Kenyan mall shooting at 30,000 feet.

What do you guys think of The Blacklist so far? Be sure to check out stars Megan Boone and Diego Klattenhoff’s Top 10 Gangster Movies on the Nerdist Channel. Moreover, do you want to see weekly recaps of this show or just periodic updates, kind of like a “State of the Union”-type deal? We’re expanding our TV coverage and we want to know what you guys want to see, so let us know in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.

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3 comments

  • I actually really enjoyed this pilot except I found there was almost too much Hannibal Lector influence, it almost became eye rolling by the end. The end twist was pulled off really well though imo

  • I think I’m going to be laughing at “resting sexual harassment eyes” every time I think of James Spader for the rest of my life.

    I saved this review to read until after I actually watched the pilot, so I watched the second episode as well. I kind of…I don’t know. I think the premise is crazy and very contrived. I also don’t know how long it can last. He seems to know exactly when and where things are happening, and I think that after a certain point, he has to become out of the loop. People will probably stop telling him things when everyone he associates with ends up dead or arrested.

    While I know there need to be several points of interest to keep the plot going, I feel it suffers from one of the same flaws that SHIELD does (IMO) where there’s too much hinting at “YOU have a tortured backstory, and YOU have a tortured backstory! EVERYONE has a tortured backstory!”

    Also, that clear box they were keeping him in with the moving floor? Come on. That shit’s ridiculous.

  • Spader is super cool and a very interesting character. The woman FBI agent he tries his best to help out is not. Basically she is a non professional, inept, non appreciating person. Spader saves her life more than once yet she not only never thanks him she wants him to be more sympathetic to the person who was just about to kill her. One guy was going to drop her into a tub of acid alive. Spader saves her and instead dumps the bad guy into the acid. She calls Spader a monster for this. Thinks he’s not a sympathetic person.