The Blacklist: “Pilot”
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The Blacklist: “Pilot”

The Blacklist is this season’s “odd couple crime investigators” series. It’s also a geopolitical riff on the books and movies featuring Hannibal Lector, which would seem less pathetic if it weren’t on NBC, a network that already has an official Hannibal Lector spinoff. The fun begins when James Spader, wearing a hat and coat he must have stolen from the Shadow, walks into FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., politely gives the woman at the front desk his name, and then drops to his knees and assumes the position. He’s Raymond “Red” Reddington, international super-criminal, and his surrender turns on every red light in the intelligence community. Before you can say “Zero Dark Thirty meets Dollhouse,” Red is whisked off to a black site, where Harry Lennix, as FBI Director Cooper—seriously?, all the Twin Peaks fans in the house say in unison—stares wonderingly at his image on a video screen.  

Red’s case agent is Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff). While flipping through an imaginatively chosen selection of head shots of James Spader throughout the years, Ressler describes Red’s career—a brilliant naval cadet on the fast track to admiral who abandoned his wife and daughter and disappeared on Christmas Eve 1990, before resurfacing as an international dealer in government secrets and contact man for scumbags of every kind—to Lennix and a roomful of other people who presumably ought to already know this stuff, but who allow him to rattle on, just in case they’re on a TV show and this mudslide of back story is really for the audience’s benefit. Meanwhile, Spader is patiently biding his time, waiting for the table to be set so he can start dispensing his sly putdowns and wisecracks.

The hook is that Red, who sneers at the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list as “a popularity contest at best,” has the real thing: a “wish list” of all the worst people (“politicians, mobsters, hackers, spies”) he’s encountered in the course of his 23 years on the dark side. These, he tells his captors, are “the criminals who matter, the ones you can’t find, because you don’t know they exist.” One of them, Ronko Zamani, is about to abduct the tiny daughter of a general, as part of a scheme to enact revenge for a U. S. bombing of a chemical plant that killed his own family. Red is eager to help, but he’ll only talk to Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler who is just about to report for her first day of work. When Elizabeth is brought in, she tells Cooper that she’s the kind of tough, focused hard worker who is regarded as a “bitch” by those who have to work with her, and that, like the heroes of Red Dragon and Silence Of The Lambs, she has “a deep yearning to relate to and understand the criminal mind.” In her first face-to-face with Red, he’s even more candid: “I think you’re very special,” he tells her, and compliments her on having overcome her background as “the daughter of a career criminal” with “a mother who died of weakness and shame.”

Spader is in his smooth-criminal element here, and the script keeps popping Mysterious Questions that are meant to whet the viewer’s appetite: What’s really going on here, and what does Red know about it, and how does he know? What keeps the pilot on the wrong side of promising is that none of the characters are a fair match for Red, and most of the actors are less than a fair match for Spader.  Diego Klattenhoff played the guy on Homeland who had excellent reason for suspecting the worst about the buddy whose wife he was in love with, yet he still managed to come across as kind of an asshole. Here, he inspires the kind of reaction an actor is likely to get when his character never shuts up about wanting to send the only entertaining character in the show to Gitmo. Megan Boone is more of a central problem, though it’s not clear how much of it comes down to her not being up to the role, or the role just not being there in the first place. She has scenes explaining herself to Spader and Lennix in which she basically rattles off explicit descriptions of what the producers want us to believe she’s playing: a smart, driven woman with a hellish past who’s not afraid to seem abrasive. But she’s introduced to the audience in an elaborate meet-cute of a sequence in which she and her husband (Ryan Eggold) rush around trying to get ready to leave the house for their jobs, trading fun repartee about the dog peeing on the floor and their plans to adopt a baby. Some of this is undercut by the final plot twist of the pilot, but Boone still comes across as a romantic comedy heroine in the wrong show—Rachel McAdams with less grit.

In the security motorcade with the general’s daughter, Elizabeth gives the little girl a pin, telling her, “To get a pin like this, you’ve got to be very brave. This can be your special pin.” A few minutes later, the girl is taken, in the big action set piece of the week, with Keen giving her a Liam Neeson-style pep talk just before the bad guys claim her. When Keen finds her again, the girl is wired to explode. Keen, who has a mysteriously significant scar on her palm, kneels in front of her and tells her that when she was a child, “I had a secret weapon to keep me safe. My daddy gave it to me. It’s like magic. Whenever I’m feeling sad or afraid, I just touch it, and it makes me brave. Do you want to see if it can make you brave?” You expect the little girl to tell her, “Thanks, but I still have my special pin, and it’s been working like gangbusters!” Meanwhile, Red has effortlessly evaded top-level security and is wandering around doing the intelligence guys’ jobs for them, because, James Spader. It ought to be easier to get sucked into The Blacklist than it is; Spader is fun to watch, and you can scarcely help but wonder where some of the dangling plot threads are going. (The true nature of Red’s paternal interest in Elizabeth is the least of them.) But if the show is going to develop any substance, the producers are going to have to endow the characters besides Red with some stature and interest. Making Red himself seem, if not vulnerable, then at least not exempt from the laws governing gravity, time, and space wouldn’t hurt, either.

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