Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pilot Review: The Blacklist

The Blacklist (Mondays at 10:00 on NBC)

I was really excited to watch The Blacklist after hearing a ton of advance praise from critics and audiences alike (apparently it was NBC's highest-tested pilot since Heroes). The early previews made the show look slick and smart, and the prime slot out of The Voice relayed NBC's faith in it. So I was surprised when I found the pilot to be kind of a mess.

Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader) walks into FBI Headquarters one morning and turns himself in. He is one of their most wanted fugitives, and he lays himself at their mercy because he has information to share. Red is in possession of information about some of the world's most dangerous criminal masterminds and terrorists, and he is willing to share this information with one particular agent: Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone, Law & Order: LA).  And today just happens to be her first day. When Keen is called in to speak to Red, he tells her that a prominent General's daughter is about to be kidnapped and murdered by a presumed-dead terrorist, and the FBI must race to prevent it from happening. When they do, he will share the rest of his information.

I think I'll start with the performances here. Spader is like a caged animal, channeling the best traits of Hannibal Lecter into a creepy (if sometimes excessively sly, as if he's playing at a different level than the other actors) but magnetic character. Boone isn't nearly as interesting or charismatic (and she's certainly no Jodie Foster to Spader's Anthony Hopkins), but she's just fine. No one else really gets much screen time, though it's heartening to know that the supporters include Harry Lennix and Diego Klattenhoff. So the cast is pretty damn solid. As for the rest...

Aside from being a combined rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs and Homeland, both far superior to this, The Blacklist is pretty silly. It takes itself so deadly serious, but it's not really smart enough to do that. It's full of stupid little things that just don't make sense. Why would Elizabeth schedule an adoption meeting for the middle of her first day of work? Why is the General's daughter at ballet class at 1:30 in the afternoon? These are inconsequential things, moments meant to increase dramatic tension and/or quickly cut between locations to add a sense of motion, but they are very much out of place and just make the weaknesses of the show apparent.

I'm also really not a fan of shows (or any form of entertainment, for that matter, from shows to books to movies) where the audience is smarter than the characters, especially in this case when the characters are representing the protective agencies of the United States. When Beth is taken, did no one in that FBI task force question the fact that there was a chemical spill on a bridge at the exact moment Red said the kidnapping would occur? No wonder I identified so much with Red: he's the only intelligent character on display. Everyone else is boneheaded. With the knowledge that a young girl will be abducted at any moment, Elizabeth doesn't rush out to save her; instead, she takes the time to have a heart-to-heart with her husband over the phone. Then she remembers, "Wait... I can't tell you. It's classified. This whole day is classified." (That's an actual quote from the show, by the way, not me trying to make Elizabeth look dumb.) This is followed by several scenes of over-the-top chase music, Megan Boone doing her best Claire Danes cry-yell impersonation, and James Spader chewing the scenery to shreds. Everything is taken so seriously that it becomes melodramatic, like an opera. This is none too surprising, considering director Joe Carnahan is known for such high-octane action films as Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, all high on quick cuts and shootouts but low on character development. Jon Bokenkamp's script is pretty bad as well, and most of my issues with the pilot can be traced back to his nonsensical scene structure and run-of-the-mill action flick dialogue. His concept, however, is intriguing. The idea of Red's "blacklist" of the world's most wanted criminals is a very good twist on the standard government/police procedural, giving The Blacklist a bit more urgency and weight than your typical by-the-numbers cop show.

I question how the concept will carry out for multiple seasons should the show be a hit, but I'm at least a little interested in seeing where the story goes. The greater mysteries of Red's character, why he is doing all this, why he involved Elizabeth, interest me. I just don't really like how The Blacklist is going about solving them. I will, however, give it a few more episodes in hopes that it calms down on the action scenes and adds more interaction between Spader and Boone, whom I also hope will become more comfortable and natural in their roles. Then, I will find The Blacklist worth watching.

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