James Spader was always a good actor who only realized his true potential on the small screen. When David E. Kelley cast him as the morally bankrupt Alan Shore on the final season of The Practice, he instantly revived a show on the downgrade, and became so vital that Kelley basically created his next series Boston Legal centered around him. For the better part of five years, he served as Kelley's mouthpiece, raging against the inequities of the Bush presidency, American political and moral decay, to the point that when he argued before the Supreme Court, he had the temerity to bash them. Much better actors have flopped around his dogma; Spader created a convergence that made this engrossing. There's a reason he won three Emmys for Best Actor.
Yet for all Alan Shore's flaws (and he had a multitude of them), we could root for him because he was on the side of the angels. In NBC's The Blacklist, he has a far more difficult task--- playing a character who is utterly and completely corrupt, with no redeeming virtues, and whose every word is either a lie or a manipulation. This is traditionally the type of character that is better served by cable, and even then, there's less of a risk because the targeted audience is smaller. Spader has been given prime real estate (the hour immediately following The Voice), and he's on a network that desperately needs a hit show. Fortunately, he is up to the task. Even more fortunately, the series they've created around this character seems that it might actually be worth inhabiting.
Spader plays Raymond Reddington, twenty years on the FBI's most wanted list, who in the series teaser walked in the front door of the FBI and surrendered himself. He has since made an offer to the Bureau: to give them "the blacklist"--- the real dangerous criminals out there, so dangerous they are all but unknown, based on one condition--- the will only deal with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), an agent who has been in the Bureau only one day, and no apparent connection to Reddington. Yet somehow he seems to know every intricate detail of her life, and he keeps unsettling her with his knowledge.
The moment he turns himself in, Keen's life goes from picturesque to nightmarish. Her fiancée is nearly killed, and in trying to clean up, she uncovers evidence that he is living a secret life, quite possibly a criminal one. Her apartment has been put under surveillance by a mysterious, apple-eater figure who may have a connection to Reddington. Not to mention the fact that she is being sent in on a weekly basis, adventures she is in no way qualified for. And there is an underlying possibility that Red may be involved in her childhood in ways she--- or the audience--- can't figure.
The Blacklist is one of the more impressive products of the fall season so far. It does seem closer to a facsimile of Alias, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; the TV world could use a couple more of those. The one potentially troublesome thing has nothing to do with the show. Spader was such a strong personality that his character completely overwhelmed everyone else on both of his previous drama. Now, once again, he's given a very charismatic anti-hero type to play. But even if history repeats himself, TV with Spader is better than TV without it.
My score: 4 out of 5 stars