Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Idiot Box: The Blacklist - 1x01 - "Pilot" Review

Did you ever watch that show The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo? Not the original series, but the later one with Scrappy Doo and Vincent Price. Call it sacrilege, but I always liked it better, because they were actually going after real monsters instead of just Old Man Wilkins in a mask or something. The thing is, the show only had thirteen episodes, one for each ghosts, and it always seemed strange to me that they would limit themselves like that right off the bat. Of course, sometimes this works in the reverse, like in The 100 Lives of Captain Black Jack Savage or The 100 Deeds Of Eddie McDowd, two shows cancelled long before they reached their goal, their centennial promise now seeming a bit lofty in retrospect. It took a while, but it looks like we've finally learned that when building a show around a finite definable goal, its best to keep the exact number vague. We never find out how many criminals are on the blacklist in the pilot to The Blacklist, and I hope we never do, because this is a show that should get to go on long past the point where this plot device would otherwise be plausible.

The Blacklist marks James Spader's long awaited and welcome return to episodic television after the criminally cancelled Boston Legal, a show that despite the by then tired David E. Kelly formula proved to be one of the best hour long dramas in the last 20 years thanks in large part to Spader's brilliantly slimy charisma. Ever since first hitting my radar with Less Than Zero, I've always marveled at how well he can make such vile and despicable characters so sympathetic. Whether he's whipping Maggie Gyllenhal or fucking Rosanna Arquette's leg wound, I still can't help but find the guy captivating for some ungodly reason. No less with his latest character, the somewhat cheesily named Raymond "Red" Reddington, the so-called Concierge of Crime. If you haven't seen it or heard the premise, the series follows him on a mysterious mission to bring down a collection of his fellow criminals with the help of a neophyte FBI agent and a skeptical agency forced to play his game. Its about as silly a set up as a bunch of cultists following a Poe-inspired serial killer, but this time it's actually, you know, good.

I'm instantly reminded of The Following for two reasons. For one, both shows seem to be centered around the same conceit of a Hannibal Lecter-style interrogation dynamic between their respective lead characters. But more than that, both shows represent examples of my becoming very excited about the prospect of a new police procedural solely based on the presence of an actor I like, one known primarily for film making a rare jump to television. Kevin Bacon couldn't even save The Following from being crushed under the weight of its own tedium and absurd bullshit, but Spader seems more than capable of carrying us through some of the more outlandish elements of The Blacklist relatively unscathed, at least if this first episode is any indication. Plot beats and character moments that I would call out as too stupid even for me and tonally off are saved by just how much I want to stick with the story to see the machinations of this anti-heroish villain unfold. For his part, Spader comes off like he's having a lot of fun in the role, and even though I may have wanted more as far as the set up to the ongoing mystery, his glee is positively contagious.

This is the second of five shows I was looking forward to this season, the first being Sleepy Hollow, and the next being Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So far, Sleepy Hollow is still surprisingly the front runner just in terms of its insane premise and no holds barred execution of it, but in the long run, I have to imagine The Blacklist will be the more sustainably enjoyable show. Its structure and characters are more grounded and there's less potential for it to go off the rails, that is assuming either of these shows survive the curse of my enjoying them and don't get cancelled as I assume they will be. Sleepy Hollow might be a little more bombastically fun, but none of the characters hold a candle to Reddington, even if he is just basically the same character Spader always plays, only in a different and might I say very stylish hat. At the very least, I'm surprised that I already have two shows good enough to justify continuing on with. It remains to be seen whether S.H.I.E.L.D., Masters of Sex, or Almost Human will continue to impress.

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