“Are you on the list?” reads a rather large poster board on the walls of Toronto’s Union Station. As commuters passed by the confusing list of thousands of names they began to search for their own. Day after day a man would come by and cross out names on the list until finally on Friday, September 20th, the blacked out names read, “The Blacklist," a dramatic advertisement for the new television drama starring James Spader. The pilot aired Monday, September 23rd, 2013.
The Blacklist begins with a view of a man (James Spader) walking into an FBI building, giving his name, and asking to see the Assistant Director. He slowly walks to the center of the building, removes his coat and lays it down on top of his briefcase and hat. Then he calmly lowers himself to his knees, placing his hands behind his head just as alarms begin to sound as his name ‘Raymond “Red” Reddington’ is acknowledged by the computer. He is quickly surrounded by armed guards and captured.
Spader has a vast and varied career. If you watch the pilot and don’t recognize him, some of his former roles include Steff the jerk from Pretty in Pink, Daniel Ellsberg in The Pentagon Papers (a TV movie which you may not have seen but one I highly recommend,) the quirky and lovable Dr. Daniel Jackson in Stargate, Mr. Grey in Secretary, Alan Shore in The Practice and later Boston Legal, and even W.N. Bilbo in Lincoln.
In The Blacklist, like many of Spader’s characters, Reddington is mysterious, drawing you in with a calm, smug exterior hiding a mountain of secrets. His motives (other than destroying the people on his “blacklist”) are not made clear and I suspect will be a running source of conjecture and speculation throughout the first season, if not the series.
The scene that follows is one in which the audience is introduced to Assistant Director Harold Cooper, (played by Harry Lennix from Dollhouse, and 24) Agent Donald Ressler, (played by Diego Klattenhoff from Homeland) and subsequently receives a background on Reddington. In brief, Reddington is a former talented and highly respected FBI Agent who went rogue on Christmas Eve of 1990. En route to see his wife and daughter he disappeared only to resurface four years later when classified documents were leaked and traced back to him. Reddington allegedly has built a career on “brokering deals for criminals” and has earned himself the nickname the “Concierge of Crime."
As for Harold Cooper, although you get the impression his character is one that will likely stick around, in this first episode he doesn’t make much of an impact. You neither really like or dislike his character but I suspect that will change soon.
Donald Ressler, on the other hand, while not leaving the audience with much of a feel for him, manages to display an abrasive attitude while still leaving the impression that he is overall a decent human being and devoted to his work.
After these brief introductions the plot continues as Reddington reveals to the FBI that a Serbian criminal, Ranko Zamani (Jamie Jackson), formerly thought dead has just entered the United States with a plan to abduct the daughter of U.S. General Daniel Ryker (Chance Kelly). Reddington thus refuses to cooperate further unless he is permitted to speak only with Elizabeth Keen.
Enter Elizabeth Keen, (played by Megan Boone from Law & Order: LA) an independent hard-working female lead who has just begun her first day as a profiler for the FBI.
As the show continues, the daughter of the General is in fact taken, which progresses the relationship between Keen and Reddington as the FBI requires more information to find the girl and catch Zamani. The suspense rises as Keen finds Zamani in her apartment demanding to know what information the FBI has on him while threatening her battered husband who ends up in the hospital on a ventilator. Personally I think this event helps to develop Keen’s character by creating sympathy for her situation. Initially she is introduced as a strong willed and mentally capable individual. However, this situation leaves her confused, angry and erratic.
The distraught and irate Keen goes to speak with Reddington, which results in her stabbing him in the neck with a pen. While hospitalized, Reddington escapes to meet with Zamani. Their conversation is brief but leaves the audience questioning Reddington’s allegiance and motives further.
With help from Reddington, Liz eventually finds the girl who is attached to a bomb which is disabled by an unknown friend of Reddington’s — who shows up just in time, doesn’t speak English and runs off with the bomb once disabled. Also, Zamani is killed in action at another location by Ressler. Minus a few minor details, the episode ends with Reddington explaining that Zamani was just the first on his “list” of criminals, which he wishes to catch, and the FBI has no knowledge of.
There were a few things I thought the show could improve on. First, I find the show jumps around a fair amount, and introduced a lot of minor characters the viewer really never really gets to know. Additionally, the pace is rather fast, even for television. Of course, I recognize that this is a pilot, and there is clearly a fair amount of information that needs to be shared, as well as a significant number of characters that need to be introduced. I assume the episodes will be more structured as the season progresses, and hopefully the pace will be corrected to a manageable speed so the viewers have time to fully absorb the events taking place.
Second, there were a few things the episode could have done without. The large retractable metal box in which Reddington was being held at the FBI building was, completely unnecessary. I assume this holding cell was used to convey to the viewer how dangerous a man Reddington really is; however, the introduction in which he is surrounded by the fifty or so armed guards clarifies that from the beginning. Also, the fact that he is handcuffed to a chair for the better part of the episode should also suffice.
I also find it ridiculous how incompetent the FBI is made to look in this pilot. First, they remove the General’s daughter from a seemingly safe dance class only to drive her straight into a ploy that results in handing her over to the criminals they mean to protect her from.
Also, the security measures to confine Reddington at the FBI are obscene, yet he escapes through an unguarded open window from his hospital room. I can’t tell if this incompetence is deliberate or simply a byproduct of trying to demonstrate Reddington’s cunning intelligence.
Regardless, as far as pilots go, this was attention grabbing, informative, and left room for an intricate plot to develop. Overall I liked the episode. I’ll admit I’m probably biased because I generally like most of the work I’ve seen by James Spader and this one doesn’t disappoint. The main character does essentially what he is supposed to. He draws in the audience, fosters curiosity, and then leaves the viewer with a dozen unanswered questions, which will inevitably bring them back to watch next week.
I know I will.
Natalie Amato is a ninja cappuccino-slinging barista by day, undercover freelancing graphic designer, photographer, and writer by night (…and sometimes during the day).