How THE BLACKLIST Used a Divide and Conquer Strategy to Become the Biggest Hit of the Season
By Merrill Barr on May 14, 2014
Warning: Spoilers for The Blacklist Season 1 — including Monday’s season finale — abound.
This past Monday, television’s runaway success, The Blacklist concluded its freshman season in spectacular fashion by slitting the throat of one F.B.I. agent, strangling another, revealing to us the face of soon-to-be Reddington arch nemeses, Berlin, and giving us a new clue regarding the question of how Red and Liz are connected. As we look back on the season, one of the most fascinating things to ponder is how the show managed to stay exciting despite its hefty episode order. Now, on the verge of its second season, we thought it might be a good idea to examine not just what lead to the series initial success, but what kept audiences tuning in week after week after week.
From the moment rookie F.B.I. agent Elizabeth Keen drove a pen into the neck of criminal mastermind Red Reddington in the initial series trailer from last May, audiences were hooked into what was arguably one of the most exciting new dramas of the season. It’s in this excitement, this anticipation of wanting to watch the adventures of Red and Liz play out, that the series’ writers and producers managed to convince audiences into coming back over and over again. How, exactly? By utilizing a strategy of divide and conquer.
Making a serialized drama work in a 22-episode format is damn near impossible without an episodic element to carry the story along when serialized matters are not being addressed. Red’s list wasn’t just a premise, it was how the show divided itself into divisions in order to give new viewers an opportunity to enter the drama free of mythology and watch the story as passionately as early adopters did. Think about the non-Red centric episodes like when Mako Tanida came after Ressler, causing him to lose his fiancé and have his character shifted into a completely new direction. Think about the time the task force went after The Judge; that episode had little to do with any of the series mythology, yet it was still exciting.
Often, and especially when the show returned with “The Good Samaritan” in January, much of Red’s arc would take place outside of any given blacklister’s episode. Red hunted Tom on his own, he enlisted the help of the cowboy on his own, he dealt with the Jolene Parker situation on his own. It wasn’t until Red was in need of F.B.I. resources that he would interject himself into the task force’s investigations. If he didn’t need to be part of a given man-hunt, he wasn’t. While broadcast shows sometimes suffer from mandates that require certain lead characters to appear in every episode, nothing stopped The Blacklist from only using Spader when absolutely necessary. If he wasn’t important to the case of the week, he would show up, hand the task force a name and leave. Not only did this method free up the show’s airtime, it freed up audience members who didn’t have a full grasp on who Red was.
As Keen and the task force kept procedural fans happy, Red and his crew carried the mythology torch. In a broadcast rarity, the series figured out how to play both sides of the coin and ultimately succeed in the end. It would be over-hype to say the season was flawless, every show of The Blacklists’ episode length suffers an occasional hiccup along the way, but it’s not unfair to say the series clicked because, even with the occasional hiccup (the first half of “The Alchemist,” anybody?), the show never lost its spunk, and that has everything to do with how plot labor was handed out among characters. Instead of thrusting everything at the audience in a shotgun blast of exposition, the NBC thriller used targeted sniper fire to keep everything streamlined and only revealing when absolutely necessary. It’s because of this that The Blacklist ended up being one of the most successful dramas of the season.
What did you think of The Blacklist Season 1? Let us know in the comments below.