It happens every October. Television executives anxiously pore over Nielsen ratings, and a few short days or weeks later the streets of Hollywood run red with the blood of new series, unceremoniously axed before they’re even halfway through their first seasons.
Unlike cable networks, which, thanks to subscription revenue, can take their time building an audience, the broadcast field is so advertiser-dependent most rookie shows have only two or three episodes to prove themselves. Among the increasingly small number of survivors and thrivers in the 2013 television season, NBC’s The Blacklist has emerged as the biggest winner, ranking as the highest-rated new drama of the fall (though Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is giving it a run for its money).
There’s good reason for the show’s success as The Blacklist writers have so far managed to incorporate the best of both television worlds—the ongoing character development and long-term story arcs of cable with the satisfying, self-contained conclusions of network. The show’s killer, high-suspense concept doesn’t hurt either.
During criminal profiler Liz Keene’s first day on the job, the FBI’s fourth most wanted man walks into agency headquarters and turns himself in. Former CIA spy Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) has been on the run for 20 years, selling national secrets to America’s enemies. But, he announces in that sly way only Spader can, he’s ready to turn traitor again and help the U.S. government capture or kill all his terrorist associates—if, that is, the FBI will allow him to work with Agent Keene (Megan Boone). Keene’s boss, Harold Cooper (Henry Lennix), has a long history with Red and is certain the agency’s being set up, but unwilling to forgo such a ripe opportunity, he agrees to Red’s condition, and the odd-couple police work begins.
If The Blacklist bears a striking resemblance to the setup of The Silence of the Lambs, the nature of Raymond and Liz’s relationship quickly veers into deeper territory, with hints that Raymond didn’t choose Liz simply for her lovely looks and top-of-her-Quantico-class smarts. What’s more, while a delightfully entertaining Spader offers up plenty of smirking one-liners as a criminal mastermind, his performance also hints at a yearning to come in from the cold fringes of society and right the wrongs of his past. In contrast to the recent crop of popular dramas that center on antiheroes gleefully falling further and further into the mire of corruption, Red appears to be trying to climb back out. Whether his efforts are fueled by a sincere desire for redemption or a nefarious long con game remains to be seen and is a large part of the fun of the show.
The Blacklist is also a welcome divergence from the darker trend of shows like Criminal Minds, Dexter, The Following, and Hannibal. While Spader’s character is self-serving and certainly willing to dirty his hands to achieve his ends, he’s not perverse or sadistic. The Blacklist may have a few bloody moments in its first few episodes, including a broken femur and a severed hand, but as of the time of this review, it forgoes any brain eating, intestine removing, or other excessively gross gore currently common on television. It doesn’t, of course, forgo the typical mild language we’ve come to expect from network prime time, though it did seem slightly less obtrusive than it does on other shows.
The one wrench in the machine is that terrorism-related series like 24 and Homeland have become so sophisticated and Americans so necessarily educated on the inner workings of counterterrorism agencies that some of Spader’s swaggering manipulations push past the bounds of believability. Twenty years ago audiences might have bought that a crew of kidnappers could blow up a bridge in the capital and boat away in a yellow dingy in broad daylight. Today, we’re less likely to accept a Keystone FBI. A politically restrained FBI, maybe. But not a hopelessly incompetent one.