The Blacklist: A Review of NBC’s New Saving Grace

I’ve had the luxury of being able to see a few new pilots early this year and The Blacklist is one of them. While it’s aired on television by now I figured i’d publish the thoughts I had a few weeks back and had to actually write for a class (I know a class where I get to review TV shows, it’s heaven!). So here is my (lengthy) review of one of my favorite new shows of the fall season..

 

NBC’s new drama The Blacklist is set to be the struggling network’s saving grace this fall season. The fantastically suspenseful pilot sets up what promises to be thrilling ride. James Spader stars as Raymond “Red” Reddington – a top criminal that has been wanted by the FBI for years. Red’s a coveted fugitive until he decides to turn himself in with the guise that he’ll help the FBI catch other wanted fugitives. But he won’t do it alone. Enter Liz Keen (Megan Boone), a profiler whose first day at the FBI finds her teaming up with Red to catch a terrorist because he won’t work with anyone else.

Red surrenders in the FBI offices with a cold composure, but still has startling confidence once he is in their custody. He begins making demands immediately, and he’s a man that knows he’ll get what he asks for. It’s simple: he’ll help them find presumed-dead terrorist Ranco Zamani under the condition that the FBI officer he works with is Keen. The FBI is obviously a little suspicious of this – but startlingly they seem more suspicious of Keen than Red’s request. They even send every government vehicle possible, including a helicopter, to pick her up to question her.

When it’s made clear she has no connection to Red or awareness of the situation she’s allowed to talk to him.  Watching the psychological cat-and-mouse game between Red and Keen is captivating. Finding an actress that can just about hold her own with James Spader isn’t an easy task, but Keen seems game to give it a go. Megan Boone’s acting gives Keen a lighthearted sensibility while still keeping her serious and intense, like her job demands.

It’s clear that Red wants something from Keen, and despite her resistances, he may very well get it. “I’m going to make you famous, Lizzy” says Red as he begins to take her on a complicated journey to rescue an abducted girl and take down Zamani. The girl’s father had engaged in chemical warfare that decimated Zamani’s family – and now he was itching for revenge. The abducted girl storyline is intertwined with Keen and her husband trying to adopt a child themselves. This plot point seemed a bit contrived, but worked well in highlighting Keen’s sensitivity. She’s not just a badass FBI profiler – she’s kind hearted and can relate well with others. Red says that he will make her famous, but all the while he’s really training her to catch criminals in some twisted master-protégée situation.

The plot of the episode weaves a twisted web, and may leave some viewers a bit confused as they try to follow the breakneck pacing. What this complicated plotting does, though, is show how well Red can control situations and people. He weaves a narrative and manipulates whomever he needs to get what he wants. He might be under FBI custody now, but he’s clearly still the one controlling the game.

The question of why Keen is the “chosen one” of sorts is clearly going to be the big season long mystery. As the master of this game Red is the only person who knows the answer to this, and the odds of him giving it up anytime soon is unlikely. The pilot doesn’t give anything definite away, but a few comments here and there do lend themselves to some theories. The theory most likely to be presented by viewers is that of Keen being Red’s daughter. After the amount of time spent reiterating that he left his family and that Keen’s father left her it seems like a no brainer. But it also seems too easy.  Could the most anticipated drama of the fall season really be unraveled that easily? It’s doubtful, but it’s fun to speculate.

As to be expected the pilot has its drawbacks. The one big flaw is the flaw of any pilot: the immense amount of exposition. While a typical pilot problem, this amount of exposition felt dizzying. With the story already set up, though, hopefully the episodes to come find a more fleshed out tone instead of cramming too much information down viewer’s throats.

A prime example of too much exposition is the issue of Keen’s boyfriend, Tom. After learning Keen is tracking him down Zamani decides to use Tom as a pawn and attacks him. The bloodied, bruised, and half dead Tom seems to be an innocent victim in Liz’s hectic life. But the final moments of the episode find Keen learning her boyfriend is not who she thinks she is – and it all seems a bit too much. The reveal is clearly a ploy to get Keen to talk with Red again, as he had initially told her Tom was hiding something. It seems like a plot point that, while interesting, could have waiting until later in the season. It’s a case of too much too soon.

Thematically we already know what this show is trying to say: nothing is as it seems. Keen is the only character we have any kind of grasp on. We know that there was a fire when she was younger where someone may have tried to hurt her. We know he father was a career criminal who abandoned her. We know she wants a child. We can interpret Keen because we know things about her. Red, on the other hand, is an enigma. His intentions are none to clear and he plainly knows more than the characters, and the viewers, at all times. Watching these two go toe-to-toe each week promises to be enthralling television.

After Zamani’s eventual takedown Red is eager to go at it again and capture criminals from a list that includes men that the FBI don’t even know exist. “Let’s call it the blacklist,” he says, “that sounds exciting.” Oh yes, Red, The Blacklist does sound exciting.

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