Crazy and boring are not a great combination. The Blacklist is, in some ways, embracing its craziness—albeit not with the kind of free-spirited elan of Sleepy Hollow, a show that frequently acts as if it had been kicked in the head by a horse when its brain was still forming, but on which there’s seldom a dull moment. In The Blacklist’s third episode, the government seems to have abandoned any face-saving attempt to maintain the pretense that Red is in custody. In his first scene, he’s sitting in the park, playing chess without a partner, so that someone can just come up to him and inform him that a super-villain is in need of his assistance. (After their conversation is completed, James Spader asks the messenger to take his leave, saying, “I prefer to play with myself in private.” God bless him, Alan Shore’s still in there somewhere!) In the course of his mission, Red goes undercover as his bad self and, as payment for services rendered to the villain, is given a red envelope. At the end of the hour, Red is seen enjoying his latest swellegant, candlelit meal and opening the envelope, so that we can see that it contains a sheet of paper with a six-digit number on it.
I think we’re supposed to be so mesmerized by the mystery of the six-digit number and what it means that we’re not supposed to ask, wait, the FBI let him keep his “payment,” without even enquiring as to what the hell it was? It’s just as well that the FBI has decided to just let Red wander about unsupervised and unobserved; it’s implausible, but at least we’re spared those ridiculous scenes where he just up and wanders off when he’s supposed to be under heavy guard. It’s not even that jarring that, after Red made a pretty big deal, in the first two episodes, of wanting his own hand-picked, two-person security detail, his bodyguards only appear for a few seconds just before the next-to-last commercial break, and don’t seem to be urgently needed when they do show up. It’s better than having screen-time lavished on them if they’re going to be ciphers, as deadly boring as they were last week. (The show already has two perfectly good boring time-wasters in the agents Ressler and Malick, who star in tonight’s semi-comprehensible big action set-piece.) The business with the envelope tears it, though. When shows like Sleepy Hollow or Scandal are entertaining, it’s because the craziness has a spiraling, fever-dream quality; it’s the result of the writers’ always looking for ways to top themselves. The Blacklist is crazy in an unambitious way that smells of laziness. It’s crazy because finding ways to make its stories plausible would take some work.
All the work on this show is going into the inessentials, in feeding Red those elegant turns of phrase he uses to express the sentiment, “No spoilers!” When he informs Elizabeth that, as John Steed used to tell Mrs. Peel, they’re needed, she puts her foot down and tells him that she’ll only help him, again, if he’ll tell her why she’s so important to him. She specifies that she wants him to tell her “the truth,” but she fails to add “non-cryptically.” So when she orders that he deliver on his promise, all he says is, “Because of your father.” Then he adds, “I wish the answer were as simple as the question seems, but the truth is, the question isn’t simple either.” We’re getting into Monty Python territory here. (The big unintentional laugh comes when Red adds, “I share your frustration.”)
The show also keeps adding layers of Larger Mystery to the shenanigans. After her busy day with Red, Elizabeth goes home, to find her house full of people; she exchanges a few words with her husband, then stands stock still in the living room, as if she were in shock, while the camera pulls back to reveal that she’s under video surveillance by a man across the street who likes apples. This attempted final whammy is especially disappointing, because I was really hoping that, instead of zoning out, she’d talk to some of the people at her party, so that maybe we could find out what kind of friends she has and maybe get a sense of what kind of person she is when she’s not standing next to Red and looking anxious and aghast at what he’s gotten them into. Lost, to cite another counter-example of a show that worked, spent a lot of time stoking its mythology and baiting hooks for the audience, but it also did a lot more in terms of character development and emotional investment in its pilot episode than The Blacklist has done in its first three weeks, and it had a smoke monster!
This episode represents a quantum leap in boringness for The Blacklist. The established supporting characters don’t get to show any new sides, and the imperiled guest characters who need rescuing from the bad guys are barely introduced. I’m sure that next week’s will be better, if only because Clifton Collins, Jr. is the guest star and the episode title is “The Stewmaker.” (Well, I’m curious, anyway.) But after a flashy opening sequence involving a man being shot in his car and having his hand lopped off—because the bad guys think they can use his fingerprints to trigger a decryption sequence on the computer! And then, having gone to that much trouble, it doesn’t work! Ain’t that about a bitch!?—the most pertinent thing that happens is Red, while undercover in the villain’s lair, grabs a gun and kills a man, to spare him from being tortured by the bad guy, and also to save himself and Elizabeth from being exposed. Thus we learn that Red, who in last week’s episode murdered the target in front of Elizabeth and showed that he’s capable of just about anything, is in fact really, really capable of just about anything. At this point, it would be more interestingly dramatically to learn at just what point Red might draw the line at something.
- Furthering the plotline about Elizabeth’s husband’s possibly mysterious past, Elizabeth gathers a small collection of phone books, soaks them in a bucket, takes them outside, fires a bullet into them, and retrieves it. Much of this is shown in close-up, making it possible to ascertain the most interesting thing we learn about Elizabeth tonight, and maybe the most interesting thing we’ve learned about her to date: She has terrific fingernails.
- Years ago, I was in an MFA writing program in New Orleans, along with someone we all called “James the Douchebag,” though that may not have been his Christian name. He was the only person I’ve ever met who was working toward his master’s in poetry, not that there was necessarily any connection between that and the personality that was his affliction. He had, in fact, written a poem that had won some kind of award. If you ever found yourself standing next to him in a social setting, and he introduced himself, and you didn’t make a break for it, he would go on to tell you about his award-winning poem, and if you then took what seemed like the politest direct route out of the conversation and said, “Wow, that must have been some poem,” he would reach into his pocket and pull out a newspaper clipping containing the poem and the award citation attached to it, and treat you to an impromptu reading. I relate all this in the hope that it will be clear what I mean when I say that USA Today's blurb calling The Blacklist the fall's "Best New Drama" is NBC's version of the clipping in James the Douchebag's pocket. (Tonight, just before the show started, the blurb was quoted by Carson Daly, apparently on the theory that viewers will be more inclined to believe something must be true if they hear Carson Daly say it. In my experience, the exact opposite of this is true.)