NBC's new thriller 'The Blacklist' has been generating a lot of anticipation leading up to tonight's pilot. That is largely due to one name: James Spader. The show has been advertising with Spader's face, allowing the actor's considerable body of work and talent to draw viewers in. After all, Spader has won three Primetime Emmy Awards, was nominated for a Golden Globe, and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 for 'Sex, Lies and Videotape;' now THAT's a resume.
I admit, Spader is the reason I was so excited to see this pilot; did it live up to the hype? (Minor spoilers are contained below. For a full recap of everything that happened, click here.)
The premise for 'The Blacklist' is that one of the world's most wanted criminals and terrorists, Raymond "Red" Reddington (played by Spader), turns himself in and wants to assist the FBI in capturing dangerous people like himself. His motivations are unknown, but his intel is good. There is one little catch, however: Reddington will only work with one Agent: Elizabeth Keen (played by Megan Boone), a young profiler who just began her career as an Agent that very morning.
The concept is strong and simple and, to the episode's credit, the show wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. The opening scene is Reddington's surrender; we're introduced to a dumbfounded Keen shortly thereafter. Reddington knows everything about Keen despite the fact that she has never met him; the man appears obsessed and we have no idea why. However, Agent Keen is interested once Reddington explains that a dangerous terrorist (who the FBI believed deceased) is in the USA and is planning an attack that afternoon. How does he know this? Well, Reddington is the one who got him into the country. Naturally.
The stage is set and the pieces are in motion. At first, I worried that 'The Blacklist' would only prove interesting when the talent of Spader was on screen. My fear was that the Agent Keen character would amount to little more than a foil for Reddington, appearing as more of a cut-out than a rounded character. That fear was dashed when Keen's husband is injured as a part of Reddington's game and his flippant reaction to it causes an enraged Keen to take control of the situation... by stabbing a pen into Red's carotid artery. This was a shocking and unexpected scene which served to interest me in the Keen character; whoever she is, she refuses to be toyed with the way that Reddington believes he can. Suddenly, the relationship between these to uneasy partners intrigued me enough to keep watching.
NBC clearly put some money behind this pilot, as we have an action-packed attack scene and some very impressive location shoots wrapped up into the episode. The sets and enclosures for holding Red are ominous and realistic, serving to add further gravitas to the scenes before us. And, perhaps most importantly, a driving force is introduced at the very end of the story: the titular blacklist itself. Reddington has compiled a list of everyone he wants to take down over the past twenty years and he is going to use the FBI as his instrument to achieve his ends--provided they agree to his demands.
The backstory behind Agent Keen was delivered in somewhat heavy-handed fashion, but this is a pothole that every pilot must face. We know enough about her now to care, even if that information was jammed into the episode awkwardly. Keen's discovery at the very close of the episode is a good one; the added details explain why she would even be willing to go through with this bizarre situational partnership for another episode. It was a clever bit of scripting; Reddington's motivations can be mysterious but it was wise to clarify Keen's from the beginning.
'The Blacklist' delivered with a compelling opening script, an intriguing female lead (with a good performance from the relatively-unknown Boone), and several excellent Spader scenes, dripping with his syrupy vocal delivery. This was a good hour of television; I'll be tuning in next week.
GRADE: A minus