There has been a run on cat-and-mouse thrillers ever since Silence of the Lambs hit screens. These days, there is a tendency for writers to take that cop and criminal dynamic to a farther extent. On FOX's The Following, the criminal is just so obsessed with the cop he has amassed a whole citizen army of sorts to torture him psychologically and physically at times. On the upcoming drama that FX is developing based on the Gretchen Lowell books, the criminal personally psychologically and physically tortures the cop whenever she can. In every case, though, there is a history between the characters that explains, if not fully warrants, the obsessive behavior. On NBC's The Blacklist, the same can be said. Although, the cat-and-mouse here is strictly psychological, and the deeper connection is still not known after the pilot-- though it seems all-too-obvious what it probably will turn out to be.
On The Blacklist, James Spader is Raymond “Red” Reddington, a notorious criminal who just walks into a government building one day and surrenders himself. Is he a dying man who just wants a few moments of peace in the end? Has he burned all bridges or exhausted resources and therefore no longer wants to be on the run? No, the twinkle in Spader's eye and the suggestive way he speaks for this character shows that Red-- and Spader himself, really-- is still at the top of his game, and he has a bigger plan here, too. Red offers to help the FBI catch another notorious criminal, this one a terrorist because that's the sexy "get" these days, but he will only deal with one, brand new agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). And thus, Red's manipulative games of getting inside her head are born.
It's weird. Let's just get that out of the way right now. It's weird that Red should have this request and that it should be granted without exploration into the "why" behind it. The FBI cares more about catching bad guys, and he is one of them, and the names he claims to have on some list (which I'm not sorry but just made me think of McCarthy) are them, as well. But the audience should care about the why, and Keen should certainly care about the why, and the more they let it go or throw crazy plot points in to distract, the more it will feel like they're just trying to drag their feet on something that is supposed to play bigger when revealed than it inevitably will be.
The Blacklist's cat-and-mouse is certainly more akin to that in Silence of the Lambs, rather than any other examples I mentioned above, in that it is purely psychological. There is a lot about Red and Keen that is oddly reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, specifically, too. The problem, though, is that it's not all that new or exciting, and that left me, more times than once, wondering "So what?" He clearly holds all of the cards here, even while he's locked behind bars. He manages to keep his cool and calm, which can actually be really irritating because it doesn't add many layers, while her nerves (and greenness) get the better of her from time to time. He has more information-- about her line of work and even about her-- than she does. And he is certainly heads and shoulders above her in confidence and skill. And because of all of that, he seems to be much more deserving of success and your attention/devotion, even if he is sort of a bad guy here*.
* I say "sort of" because for all of the crimes he committed in the past, he is helping now, even if his motives prove to be nefarious.
Spader is both creepy and captivating on The Blacklist, and Boone is doing her best to keep up with him, but she hasn't been given a fair playing field with the character of Liz Keen. In many ways, it feels like the writers don't like Keen-- or they don't want to see her succeed-- and they're doing everything possible to tip it so the audience doesn't either. Crying over a case is one thing, but she's actually not all that good at her job either, as evidenced in this pilot episode. Yes, it's her first day with the FBI, and that would be taxing for anyone, but it's not like she was plunked down into the vest and given a gun after years of scooping ice cream or selling tee-shirts. Supposedly she trained-- and hard-- for this. Yet there are many moments in the pilot where I was left wondering how she passed her exams in the first place.
Keen is not written to be the mysterious one, and so that immediately puts her at a disadvantage for the pilot, too, that I can only hope will pay off in spades in the episodes that follow. We know where she comes from; we know her darkest secret; we know what drives her. She knows all of those things, too. She thought she knew what her life was going to be like, but with the entrance of Red into her life and the things she is unlocking about other people in her life, what will be most interesting is watching how she responds to constant curveballs. The pilot sets up the woman she has made herself into-- the one she carries herself to be-- but the episodes that follow should show us the real Liz Keen, the one who either unravels or triumphs with this great new task and great new partnership (in the oddest way possible). There is much more room for a character like Keen to grow than one like Red, who is so controlled and so calculating.
The Blacklist is certainly a character piece for both Spader and Boone's characters, which means the others around them end up being dynamic actors in little more than trope-y roles. It's a criticism that comes time and again for character-driven dramas that think it's enough to have two leads, rather than a full ensemble, and it's time that stopped being okay. Harry Lennix and Diego Klattenhoff deserve better; they have had better on other shows. But here they're relegated to the background simply because this is a television show, not a play, and no one came to just watch two people battle their wits.
Ryan Eggold, on the other hand, is given more than perhaps he should have been. His character is still something of a trope: he is Keen's boyfriend with some deep, dark secrets that only begin to come out after the audience has been tricked into thinking they're a happy, loving couple and that her line of work has put him in danger he doesn't deserve. But between his carefully combed hair and changing-his-features glasses, Eggold appears to be wearing a costume from minute one. You can see him acting-- and that raises red flags about the character immediately in a way the actor can't quite quell as the story unfolds. If he had been just a guest star the pilot episode, this wouldn't be such a big deal. But he's going to be an important part of the series, and Keen's story, going forward (their characters are trying to adopt a baby, a storyline I'd like to see explored more on network television but not in this random, ill-fitting way. After the events of the pilot, I can't imagine any adoption agency will be giving them a baby anytime soon anyway, though).
The Blacklist wouldn't be nearly as interesting or worth a second look without actors like Spader, Boone, Lennix, and Klattenhoff in the roles. It is written in a somewhat clunky way that doesn't always add up to, you know, making sense or anything. FBI agents around Keen call her a bitch, but we don't actually see her exhibiting such behavior towards them (or anyone, really). Are their comments the stereotypical "commanding men are considered good at their jobs while commanding women are called bitches" commentary? Or was she intended to be a more polarizing personality that just didn't come through upon execution? It's hard to know for sure. And there is some sort of "twist" that subsequent episodes past the pilot will be revealing-- eventually-- about just how Red and Boone are connected. It's something that right now pretty obviously seems to be able to go only one of two distinct ways, marking it as not much of a surprise at all when finally revealed. It worries me that so much hope is being hung on the fact that it's such a game-changer, but it worries me more that if it's such a game-changer, it's being held back at all. Keen may have just had her first day on the job at the FBI in this pilot, but The Blacklist is far from the first pilot of its kind that audiences have watched. Even if the show wants to underestimate Keen from time to time so she can prove her stock, it should never underestimate the audience.
The Blacklist premieres on September 23 2013 at 10 p.m.
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