There’s a certain model of TV drama pilot where everything that happens is a twist piled on top of a twist, and every commercial break reorients our understanding of the show’s characters and its world until everyone appears to be a triple agent. When a series premiere feels like that, it can be incredibly thrilling — and also incredibly difficult to tell whether the show can sustain that level of narrative momentum. J.J. Abrams shows like Lost and Fringe came on strong with kinetic premieres, and then found their own unique rhythm — so did Hawaii Five-O, produced by Abrams family members Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Conversely, Abrams-era wannabes like FlashForward or The Event came on even stronger in their opening hour and created a mess that both shows spent their short-lived runs attempting to solve. Last week’s Sleepy Hollow is a more recent example of the kitchen-sink pilot, an opening hour full of mysteries and conspiracies and witch wives trapped in fairy purgatory. And so is The Blacklist, which kicked off with a hyperkinetic episode directed by filmmaker Joe Carnahan.
There’s a soft-sell and a hard-sell to The Blacklist. The soft-sell is that it’s an eccentric procedural for a riveting TV star: A House-y showcase for James Spader. As crusading all-purpose super-criminal Red Reddington, Spader triumphs over a hilariously stupid name by doing his version of the endearingly sociopathic mastermind. He looks a bit like Hannibal Lecter and a bit like Walter White and a whole lot like John Malkovich’s Tom Ripley in the underrated Ripley’s Game.
Spader kicks off the pilot giving himself up to the authorities and proceeds to spend the hour constantly undermining those authorities’ authority. He initially offers to help them catch a terrorist; then it turns out he’s working with the terrorist, and the terrorist might even be working for him; he winds up stopping the terrorist, but the whole thing might’ve just been a ruse to let a different bad guy get ahold of a chemical weapon. This shouldn’t work, but Spader being Spader is a beautiful sight, and you can see a version of The Blacklist that’s basically a grimmer version of White Collar: A show about a cool criminal catching less cool criminals.
The harder sell on Blacklist is that it might not really be a procedural at all. Red’s primary demand is that he work with a rookie government agent named Elizabeth Keen. Twist: Keen has no connection to Reddington, and actually just started working the day that Reddington gives himself up. Double twist: Keen has a shadowy history, about which Reddington seems to know everything. Triple twist: Keen’s apparently milquetoast husband has a box full of fake passports buried under the house.
As Keen, Megan Boone has a nicely toned-down delivery — she’s a graduate from the Dick Wolf school of law enforcement, having served time on Law & Order: LA, which was an actual show that aired on television and not just a funny dream you had one time where Skeet Ulrich was a cop. But it’s clear that Blacklist will explore her backstory more. It also seems clear that Reddington has a grand plan — and that every über-criminal he helps the government catch will be one more link in the chain.
There are two versions of this show, really, and it’ll be interesting to see in which direction Blacklist veers going forward. The pilot put forward a wide variety of questions — we’ll have to see if the show can answer them. The most important question of all, clearly, is: Will Keen stab a pen into Red’s carotid artery every week?