There are shows you get frustrated with and have arguments with, and then there are shows that just get fed up with. I have serious reservations about True Detective, but they’re based on my feelings about what the show intends to be, and what it succeeds at being. In my weaker moments, I’m not certain that my idea of art is a beautifully acted, expertly staged, contemporary Southern Gothic murder mystery that talks like a late-night dorm-room bull session and is littered with Easter eggs related to hundred-year-old fantasy-horror literature. But because the show is perfectly executed, so that you can see how much thought and care have gone into making it what it is, it is compelling and demands respect.
The Blacklist is a whole other kettle of stank-ass fish. The thought behind it doesn’t go much farther than, “I bet if we could talk James Spader into signing on to play some outré master criminal who drops a lot of hints about all the secrets he knows about what’s really going on, he could hook an audience and string them along for quite some time. We wouldn’t even need a smoke monster.” As for the execution, it’s nothing to write home about. The events surrounding Spader are hackneyed, cliché-ridden, and often remarkably unpleasant, and the actors range from being too good for their roles to not good enough to conceal the fact that they have no roles to play.
Megan Boone, whose character is supposed to be the beneficiary of Red Reddington’s mysterious paternal interest, is the biggest victim here. Having introduced her as an eager novice of a criminal profiler with some well-buried childhood traumas, the show keeps moving the goal posts on her character, in a way that leaves her looking exposed and in over her head. Having already revealed that Lizzie had a “dad” with a criminal past that somehow escaped the notice of whoever did her FBI background check, tonight the show decides to hint that Lizzie might have a criminal past of her own, or at least that she might have been trained for one. Either that or she once worked as a professional magician, which is also something that you’d think would have set off a red alert during her background check. “You know how to palm a phone!?” someone asks her in astonishment, after she’s stolen a professional thief’s SIM card. At the end of the episode, feeling despondent with her husband away on a business trip and about to get into trouble, she’s seen sitting on the floor sadly practicing her sleight-of-hand. That’s the kind of thing you might find yourself doing in your moments alone if you’d started discovering secret passageways every time you clean the floor.
This episode—the last one that we’ll be reviewing here as part of regular weekly coverage—is a lot better than previous installments of The Blacklist. What that means in context is that it’s at least light and keeps the torture scenes to a minimum. It’s mostly in for the “Let’s stage a heist!” vein of con-game shows like Hustle and Leverage. The MacGuffin is a something called “the effigy of Atargatis,” which “disappeared from the British Museum in 1983” and recently “popped up at an estate sale in Henderson, Kentucky.” The target is a professional thief with the façade of a “politically active, influential good citizen,” and in keeping with the light tone, she isn’t cut from the same mold as Red’s usual gallery of monsters so vile that they need to be taken out of circulation, pronto. (When last seen, she’s still running around free.) She’s played by the magnificent, criminally underused Jennifer Ehle, whose performance is a little like Catherine O’Hara playing Meryl Streep; she even gets to insult Spader about his hair, or lack of same. There’s also a too-brief appearance by the great Zach Grenier, of The Good Wife, as an art expert. He does a pedant’s version of the same superior, effete-sophsticate routine that Spader does on the show, and next to him, Spader’s superior, effete sophisticate looks like Walter Matthau.
Whether because this episode makes no pretensions to being high-stakes, or because he suspects that the jig is up, Spader makes more of an all-out effort to entertain here than he has in the past. He gets to do a short, funny riff on a hideous painting that’s allegedly by Vermeer, and also a long, not-so-funny routine in which he pretends to be Boone’s bitchy male escort; he gets to flirt with Jennifer Ehle, and to “wear the hell out of a tux” and cut a rug with Megan Boone. He also makes his entrance with acupuncture needles sticking out of his face like a porcupine, which, sadly, is still this show’s idea of an amusingly quirky character detail. The Blacklist didn’t need to be profound, or even serious; it would have plenty if it had just been fun. Some shows set the bar so high that it can be exciting just to see them take aim; The Blacklist set the bar way down low, and missed the bullseye every damn time.