The Blacklist: promising premise dissolves into disappointment, but ratings hold up

The Blacklist has notched impressive enough ratings in its first season on NBC so as to guarantee a second season, but will audiences tire of the fact that the show keeps telegraphing its every move and settling for the easy way out of its plotlines? The show, which debuted in the fall, kicked off with one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals Red Reddington (James Spader) turning himself in and latching onto an untested agent for unclear reasons while offering to help the feds hunt down their other key criminal targets. That’s set up a cat and mouse game between anti-hero Reddington, who dishes out information only when it suits his own interests, and the FBI agents who are left to work with whatever scraps he throws them – all with layers of mystery shrouding nearly every character in terms of their relationship to each other and just what side they’re really on. But as the first season winds down, some rather severe flaws in the show’s setup have begun to emerge.

With Reddington’s vast knowledge of his fellow criminals and the FBI’s desire to take them down, The Blacklist necessarily has a dynamic in which he has the upper hand more often than not. But as the first season has gone on, that ratio has become almost cartoonish: the bureau is depicted as being almost helpless without his clues. The agents generally chase down leads that don’t pan out while waiting for Reddington to finally throw them a bone, and their boss seems almost completely incompetent. None of the agents are much of a match for Reddington, making them essentially puppets on his strings. Which is problematic, because they get as much screen time as he does.

When the show is at its best, Spader is gleefully and sarcastically chewing his way through the scenery. But even then The Blacklist has taken on something of the tone of the later Pirates of the Caribbean films, full of uninteresting characters, bad writing, and borderline incoherent plotlines that are only salvaged by fact that Jack Sparrow thinks they’re as much of a joke as the audience does. Without the one character, the entire thing would collapse of its own stale haughtiness. If TheBlacklist can’t figure out how to make its FBI characters more interesting, it might do well to simply try to include Spader in every scene so at least he can make them interesting.

But the show’s greatest flaw may be in how it handles the plot twists and secrets that it seems to be so proud of: rarely do they come as much of a surprise. The twist in which the main agent turns out to be Reddington’s daughter was telegraphed so many episodes in advance that it’s almost as if the writers of the show are trying to make the audience feel smart for figuring everything out in advance. Whereas Darth Vader’s “I am your father” proclamation was such a left field surprise that it left audiences stunned, Elizabeth Keen’s simple “Are you my father?” likely elicited little more than a collective “Duh!” from viewers.

And each time The Blacklist toys with the idea of giving Reddington either an intriguing ally or a worthy adversary, those characters seem to go as quickly as they come. When the show added quality actor Lance Reddick (Fringe) as a smirking pal of Reddington’s, he was almost immediately killed off for nothing more than shock value. And when the boss’ boss at the FBI turned out to be secretly corrupt, rather than having Reddington duel it out with her for a few episodes, the show just had him kill her off – again, seemingly for the pure shock value of it.

We get it: Red Reddington is not a good guy, and even when he does right it’s only because it advances his criminal pursuits. And we also get that he’s more clever than the average bear, typically able to outsmart the people he interacts with. But at some point The Blacklist is either going to have to surround him with characters on his level, or shove everyone else to the background and make the show entirely about him. Fortunately for the writers, the ratings have thus far been high enough that they’ll likely be given a good amount of time by NBC to figure out how to bring the show’s execution up to the level of its fascinating premise.

Will Stabley
Will Stabley is the Founder and Senior Editor of Stabley Times.
Will Stabley