Monday, September 23, 2013

REVIEW: 'The Blacklist' Pilot Sets Up a Great Series Thanks to James Spader's Mesmerizing Performance

NBC's The Blacklist - Episode 1.01 Pilot

Ex-government agent and one of the FBI's Most Wanted fugitives, Raymond "Red" Reddington mysteriously turns himself in to the FBI and offers to give up everyone he has ever worked with including a long-thought-dead terrorist but under one condition - he'll only talk to newly-minted female FBI profiler, Elizabeth Keen with whom he seemingly has no connection.

James Spader is giving my favorite performance from any new drama on a broadcast network this fall. He just fills the role of Raymond "Red" Reddington so well. He's creepy but never devolves into hammy. That is a very difficult line to walk and, at least in the pilot, Spader does it beautifully. His performance alone would be enough for me to give this show a handful of more episodes. The fact that the show has other good qualities as well gives me great hope for what is to come.

The Blacklist is not a perfect pilot. It's also not my favorite drama pilot of the fall. But I do think it is the best drama pilot that best sets itself up as an ongoing series. A lot of the new shows from this fall crop have interesting pilots but I have no clue how they work week-to-week. By the end of this pilot, I know what happens next and I'm very excited for it. It's mythology is simple enough that it is not overwhelming but ample enough to intrigue me.

But The Blacklist needs to be a two hander in order to work well. In that respect, Megan Boone as newly minted FBI Agent Elizabeth Keen is reasonably likable in the co-leading role. She does not detract from Spader's performance and is able to hold her own against him. However, she is the straight women to his grand villain. That aspect works well in the pilot but the role also needs to evolve as the series develops. She has great chemistry with Spader and he brings out the best qualities in her performance when they are together. She can also carry a scene by herself as evidenced in the sequences with the little girl and when she finds the box underneath the floorboards. I'm expecting Spader to be great but Boone's performance is what I'm most intrigued to see grow in the future.

Joe Carnahan did a great job on directing the pilot. It moves at a brisk pace and he delivers on the action sequences as well as the quiet character moments. The shootout on the bridge is a great set piece and I really enjoyed the use of closeups in Elizabeth's first interaction with Red. I do, however, think that his great direction is masking some issues in Jon Bokenkamp's script. That does concern me a bit when future episodes are in the hands of lesser directors. My main issues stem from the characters played by Diego Klattenhoff and Harry Lennix. Overall, they felt like obstacles in the way of the plot or exposition-delivering machines. I like both actors reasonably well but they never really rose above the material. This show could very easily turn into The Following 2.0 - where the FBI are complete idiots while their antagonistic counterparts are the more interesting part of the show.

And of course there's the whole adoption subplot that should never have made it into the final cut whatsoever. But in that case, I'm certain the annoying qualities of that story will be gone by episode two. At least, I'm hoping so.

Some more thoughts:
  • Parminder Nagra is joining the cast in episode two. I liked her a lot on ER. She was the only thing that kept me interested in Alcatraz longer than I should have. So, I'm eager to see what she adds here. The show definitely could use some spunk in the supporting roles.
  • So the obvious theory that everyone's been guessing on Red's true motivations since the preview isn't answered in the pilot. If that really is the reason, I would rather the show reveal it sooner than later so the show can move past it. If it's not, than the show needs to present proof that disproves it.
  • So what are everyone's theories on who Liz's husband, Tom, really is?