The Blacklist is a ludicrous and ludicrously enoyable television series. Season 2 is currently airing, but I have not seen any episodes yet (please, no spoilers)
It’s a high-concept procedural that has elements of Silence of the Lambs, Criminal Minds and Alias.
James Spader (having probably more fun than is legal) plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, a fugitive government agent who brokers international crime, jetting around the globe on his private plane and helping everyone from arms dealers to bank robbers: he is the self-styled “Concierge of Crime”.
In the show’s pilot episode he presents himself to the FBI and promises to help them find a list of crooks on one condition: he will only talk to FBI profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone). He seems to know an awful lot about her, yet wants to know more, offering information in exchange for her telling him about her personal life (that’s the Silence of the Lambs bit).
Thoughout the season Reddington and Keen work together to catch an assortment of criminals, including several baroque serial killers (a la Criminal Minds).
His main adversary is a mysterious man called Berlin, who is the one villain that Red does not actually personally know. Berlin is orchestrating a large conspiracy, but the audience gets only glimpses of it. Berlin finally shows up at the end of the season with a back-story lifted from The Usual Suspects.
Keen’s colleagues doubt his real motivation. Does he want the FBI to arrest these crooks just to eliminate the competition? And why will he only speak with her? Is Red actually her father? A larger conspiracy is at play, involving her childhood and her too-nice-to-be-real husband Tom (Ryan Eggold). Much like a show such as Alias or Lost, just as soon as you think you know what’s going on, another twist appears.
Spader is on great form, playing his character with relish. Because Red is super-rich and seems to know just about every other fabulously wealthy international villain, not an episode goes by where Spader doesn’t jet off to an exotic locale to see an old friend and ask for a favour. This allows the writers and Spader to get very silly with Red’s anecdotes about the local cuisine and former lovers. If you ever find yourself stuck in Hong Kong and are unsure how to pass the time, Red knows a wonderful little restaurant that serves the most exquisite Peking duck. It’s tucked in a back alley that no tourist would ever find and it’s presided over by Miss Hong, and she could do fantastic things with her toes.
Like many FBI procedurals, even with the presence of Spader and his eccentricities, the show soon gets into a rhythm that is awfully familiar, with a standard formula involving suspense, lots of computer jargon, a few action sequences, shadowy government types who meet in a dark room, and hints at a workplace romance between Keen and her handsome All-American colleague, Donald Ressler (the ridiculously-named Diego Klattenhoff).
Some episodes were more engaging than others, mostly because of the choice of villains. The Blacklist benefits from a wonderful variety of guest stars, including Isabella Rosselini, Dianne Wiest, Frank Whaley (Pulp Fiction), and Tom Noonan (riffing on his role as the Tooth Fairy from Manhunter).
It also affords the viewer the chance to play a great drinking game: Drink-Along-A-Meera. The CIA is represented in the form of Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra). She has contacts at the NSA, MI6, Interpol, and so on, and she reaches out to them for information in almost every epsiode.
The drinking game is really quite simple: every time Meera says “I reached out to my contacts at …” you reach out for a drink.
Don’t play the game if you are planning on watching more than three episodes in a row. You’ll be hammered.
A review of the current season will be posted here shortly.