Sep 24, 2013

The Blacklist: “Pilot”

By Josh Oakley


As The Blacklist’s first episode goes on, James Spader’s performance becomes less and less of a reason to root for the show. It isn’t that he loses any ability – throughout it all his delivery is deliriously delicious – but rather that the chance for any other positives slowly wash away. The episode is incapable of telling a solid story, even in the simplistic confines of the police procedural, a number of important performances (especially the lead) are severely lacking, and pointless mysteries are set-up for an inevitably redundant pay-off down the road. Through it all, Spader is good. But he isn’t that good.

The fact that The Blacklist is mediocre is expected, but what is shocking is just how poor it is at being mediocre. Many cop or fed shows at least wrangle some aspect of entertainment from the clutches of network notes, but beyond Spader, everything here would be significantly better if the writers bothered to even half-ass it. A pivotal moment involving a shootout and a kidnapping is telegraphed from such a distance that not even the Voyager 1 would run the risk of bumping against its beginnings. The scene doesn’t just lack tension, it hardly seems to be grasping for any.

The same problem arises near the episode’s end, though this is hardly unique to The Blacklist. The climax involves the possible detonation of a chemical weapon in a zoo (Don’t worry about how much time is left until the explosion; an LED display the size of a Times Square advertisement will clue you in). The bomb is attached to a young girl, and as the clock nears zero, the protagonist of the show, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), sits with her. So even if The Blacklist were going for something as relatively daring as an actual terrorist attack, the presence of the main character and a child assures the audience there’s no need to worry. Which is approximately the exact opposite of how you want that scene to make you feel.

The Blacklist is such a cynically calculated show, that it fails to leave any impression at all. If it weren’t for Spader, nobody would have any idea which program this was. The basic conceit -- a Hannibal/Clarice esque communication between police and criminal -- is so utterly pointless to the show’s ultimate goals. Those goals, of course, are giving the lurching masses what they need until SVU is on. This isn’t to insult the audience (I watch shows that demean my intelligence for fun occasionally; many do), but instead to rat out the executives at NBC for either being stupid or crass enough to be proud of this garbage. Even if they are right, and the show garners huge ratings, it doesn’t stop them from harming the progression of the art of television. I know that shows like this are somewhat inevitable. But NBC doesn’t have to rub it in our faces like they do here.

The plot specific to tonight’s episode only matters insofar as it allows for the general world of the show to be built. Maybe this week’s case was so stunningly generic so the main characters could be established. The problem is that nothing here attracts enough goodwill to give the show any benefits of the doubt. The cold, bland writing causes the stories and mysteries (such as the yawn of “Who is Elizabeth Keen’s husband!?”) to feel lukewarmed-over. The stupidity of The Blacklist can be most clearly seen in the largest question the show asks: “Why did the criminal mastermind pick a young, new agent to speak with? And how does he know so much about her?” The answer already feels obvious, and then the show proceeds to bash you over the head with the fact that Spader’s Red abandoned his wife and daughter, and Elizabeth Keen was abandoned by her criminal father. Pieces don’t fall any more obnoxiously than that. You can let James Spader chew all the scenery he wants, but that won’t help if it tastes this bad.

Grade: D

Miscellaneous:
  • Spader is at least fun to watch here, but please get Diego Klattenhoff and Harry Lennix off of this show. They deserve infinitely better roles.
  • Elizabeth Keen’s husband is played by Ryan Eggold, who also played Ryan Matthews on the 90210 remake. Boy, does that guy like playing “bland as stale bread”.
  • Elizabeth’s profiling of herself is one of the cheapest and laziest ways to explain a character that I’ve ever seen.
  • Oh man, I didn’t even touch on the cliché of a woman not being able to have a career and a family, though that may be dropped (thankfully) to pursue the “evil husband?” story (unthankfully).
  • One thing about this world that you'll have to get used to: the FBI is full of the world's biggest dummies. In accordance with that fact, an FBI agent can also stab a prisoner in the neck, almost killing them, and it's really no big thing.

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