TV review: The Blacklist (pilot episode)

(image via


“I think I smell the stench of your cologne, Agent Cooper. Smells like hubris.”

Once more to the anti-hero well, my friends, once more!

And in the case of James Spader, who eats worthy hammed-up parts for breakfast while the rest of us are still contemplating getting out of bed, it is definitely worth revisiting the place from which anti-heroes spring, especially quip-rich, diabolically clever ones likes Raymond Reddington.

Ballsy and accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants, he simply walks into FBI HQ in Washington DC and announces who he is, before turning around, taking off his hand and coat, kneeling with hands on head, readying himself for the inevitable arrest.

It’s all very theatrical of course as befits a criminal of his showmna-like flair, and thoroughly enhanced by the FBI who seem to have watched one too many Hollywood thrillers when they designed they’re “Holy sh*t! There’s a bad guy IN our building! Someone do something dramatic!” alarm.

It’s all flashing red lights, whooping, piercing sirens and slamming solid metal doors – woe betide you if you’re a civilian caught on the wrong of the barrier – and people rushing from pretty much every corner of the building and beyond.


All the world’s a stage for James Raddington who is arrested with flair while everyone looks on … just the way he likes it (image via


All very showy and just the sort of entrance an enigmatic man like Reddington, once a top naval commander on the rise, who disappeared 20 years earlier ostensibly to offer his services to the global criminal and terrorist elite, craves like air.

And though he is whisked off to a “black site” (read: we haven’t told the overseers it’s here; shh, no one say a thing) and shackled and constrained, he remains resolutely calm and very much in control of proceedings, ordering around those nominally in charge like Deputy Director of Counter Terrorism Agent Cooper (Harry Lennix).

It’s stupendously, magnificently over the top and in an age where anti-heroes are disappearing off our screen fast than cable TV can replace them – RIP Dexter and Breaking Bad, we shall not see your like pass this way again … well not till next season at least – he is a welcome addition to TV screens.



So a big tick to the overweeningly confident theatrically evil genius, and his mysterious, narratively-rich agenda of which nothing is spoken till quite near the end of the episode when Spader once again wipes the floor with everyone else in the room.

James Spader wears Reddington like a perfectly tailored highly expensive suit – he’s a man with a taste for the finer things in life and the knack for getting even his captors to pay for them; at one point he commanders the penthouse suite of a hotel while he makes contact with a renegade Serb hellbent on taking revenge on an American general – and it’s a joy to watch him do his thing again.

His character, along with that of his unwilling “partner” Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) who is summoned from her home on her first day of work as an FBI profiler by a mass of helicopters, cars and the ever present red lights of which the FBI seems inordinately fond, have been framed with many unexplained layers left to explore, and it will be interesting to watch how the understandably antagonistic relationship between them develops.

Quite why he chooses a rookie profiler is unclear, although Keen herself, under pressure from an impatient Cooper (who is your average cardboard cutout Alpha Male agent; all the imagination clearly was channelled to Spader’s character) attempts to guess, giving us a neat precis of her strengths and weaknesses in the process.

But it turns out that not even Keen herself can be sure why Spader is, in the words of his “old friend” Ranko Zamani (Jamie Jackson), the Serbian criminal who is behind all the paint-by-numbers mayhem of the episode, “obsessed” with a woman who, and lord knows how the FBI missed this on their background check, was abandoned by her criminal father and left behind by a heartbroken mother who up and died in the aftermath.

She is immediately cast as a woman with an entire cemetery of skeletons in her closet, all of them clanking and jostling to get out, a brittle personality who Reddington promises will find in him a man who can be her “best friend”.


What a hell of a first day at work! Escorted by helicopter, thrown in the deep end and face to face with a devilishly clever man who seems to know more about you than you do (image by


And that is pretty much as far as the high end conspiracy concept goes.

A few other carrots are dangled throughout the show, especially when it comes to Keen’s devoted and seemingly innocuous husband, Tom (Ryan Eggold) who may have a crypt or two of his own secrets hidden away, but by and large the episode is largely given over to the kidnap and rescue, complete with explosions, close up stabbings and ticking bombs in pretty pink backpacks, of the general’s daughter.

And if Reddington’s list, his “Blacklist” of unknown evil masterminds for whom he has acted as a broker, is any guide, The Blacklist is going to stay very much a baddy-of-the-week procedural, albeit one with a tasty conspiracy bubbling away in the background.

Quite whether than conspiracy is ever going to be allowed to truly strut its strut in the show is unclear – in an age where thrillers must have a shocking twist as often as the main characters look temporarily perplexed before working it all out just in time for the ad break (keen is a whiz at this!), surely it must be allowed a free run more often that it’s not – especially since network TV is renowned for its devotion to reasonably straight forward week-by-week-the-same drama, leaving the crazy, unpredictable stuff to the cable channels.


Yes we get it – Keen is a wounded soul looking to be a mother to find some sense of healing – but The Blacklist does lay it on a bit thick at times such as Keen’s Care Bear-ish relationship with the kidnapped little girl (image via


One thing they will need to attend to are the gaping holes of logic that dotted the show like Reddington’s deliciously wicked bon mots.

One particularly perplexing example is Keen’s behaviour at times.

Which FBI agent worth their salt would take time out of a time sensitive investigation where a little girl’s life is at stake, and in which people have already died or been attacked, to sit pensively in a room before manically cleaning carpet (yes she was upset but aren’t there better ways to show it) ?

Granted she may have ducked home for some downtime and if she chooses to spend it with cleaning products and a brush who are we to criticise?

But it looked a little ridiculous in the middle of a show trying its hardest to appear hard-edged and tension-filled.

My hope is that they will fill in these glaring character credibility gaps, make the most of their been-there-done-that thriller components (we even have the rash, arrogant and ultimately clueless agent in Donald Ressler played by Diego Klattenhoff – hurrah!) from which they have assembled the show, and allow Spader especially free rein to badass his way around the show which let’s be honest, he rules.

Because when all is said and done (and stabbed and blown up and threatened and manically quipped about), I like The Blacklist.

In fact for all its implausibilities, and over the top moments, I actually rather enjoyed it.

It has real potential but it can’t rely on Spader alone, and must seek to make the whole show, yes even the well worn recycled thriller tropes of which it has many, as imaginative and out of the box as possible if it’s going to be as compelling to watch as Reddington himself.

* Check out the promo for episode 2, “The Freelancer” …



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