Blindspot is the kind of show that desperately wants to deliver an intriguing mystery, but doesn’t trust the audience to remain in a state of uncertainty. NBC’s new identity-thriller/FBI-procedural tries hard to create some compelling characters in its first episode, but by the end, it feels as though the show is struggling to find its identity just as surely as its central character.
The series revolves around Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander, doggedly trying not to let a character bereft of personality defeat her), a woman found inside a duffel bag in Times Square, the words “CALL THE FBI” emblazoned on its side. As explained through some awkward expository dialogue, she’s been administered a blisteringly high dosage of a drug that causes memory loss, meaning her pre-Time Square life is potentially gone forever, leaving her in a state of permanent amnesia. Instead, the character’s mysterious backstory—and the show’s upcoming season—is literally written all over her. Jane’s been covered in tattoos, see, with the most prominent one on her back bearing the name of Special Agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton), a hotshot FBI field operative quickly summoned to New York to take on the case.
Naturally, one of these tattoos turns out to contain the day’s date and an address, because the series needs a case of the week, and has decided to use Alexander’s body as the writers’-room storyboard. After some perfunctory heroics involving an angry young man who wants to blow up the Statue Of Liberty, Weller’s boss (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, doing the stern-but-fair supervisor routine) tells him he’s assigned to Jane for the time being, and that they should continue to try and suss out her past via the tattoos. And since the first decoded piece of ink led to some great publicity for the department, well, if they could keep solving crimes while sorting out Jane’s past, that would be just great.
There’s nothing wrong with this setup, in theory: It’s a formula for a crime procedural, albeit one which harnesses a Bourne Identity-like mystery to its back. But shows featuring a main character without a sense of self are a tough sell, especially in the early going, because as it stands, Jane Doe is a blank slate, meaning there’s very little for a viewer to connect to. Alexander’s a fine actor, but her character’s defining trait is pitiably staring into a mirror, wondering who she is. If the people surrounding her were anything beyond a stock assemblage of types (the gung-ho agent who can’t be bothered with niceties, the sympathetic female assistant, some barely-there FBI toughs), this wouldn’t be as big of a problem. But unless the show quickly works to inject some vibrancy into these rote roles, Blindspot will leave audiences without much reason to care.
The first case doesn’t do much to assuage concerns the series lacks a strong point of view. A mysterious tattoo in Chinese behind her ear leads to the revelation that Jane speaks the language fluently, and the address they’re sent to as a result uncovers the plot of a revenge-driven immigrant looking for some payback, terrorist-style, for his mother’s death. But any potential surprises are tamped down by the clunky writing. For instance, when Jane’s attacked by the landlord at the suspect’s apartment building, her discovery—that she’s highly trained in martial arts—could have been fun. But the show telegraphs it by revealing ahead of time that another tattoo on her body marks her as a Special Forces Navy SEAL. Cue the requisite ass-kicking, now vetted by that unnecessary preparation. (It’s also unfortunate that director Mark Pellington lacks much of an eye for cutting an effective action sequence, as fight choreography is one of Alexander’s strong suits.) This over-explaining happens throughout: It’s the kind of show that ends the pilot with Weller portentously intoning, “One thing’s for sure: Someone likes playing games. And they’re just getting started.”
There are brief flashes of potential. At one point, the doctor helping Jane gives her a taste test: One cup of coffee, one cup of tea. After Jane expresses a preference for the coffee (“it tastes like grass trimmings”), he points out that she still has a personality, she just needs to uncover it via life experiences. It’s a nice observation, and points to the idea that, once this laborious introduction of Blindspot’s universe is complete, there are all sorts of ways watching Jane discover herself could be entertaining. A couple of hints at a larger conspiracy also play well.
But the show simply lacks the confidence to let its audience connect the dots. Before the pilot is over, the show is cutting to flashbacks Jane doesn’t even remember, just to reassure that the audience won’t be kept in the dark as thoroughly as Jane is. But rather than raising dramatic tension, the spill into a more omniscient perspective comes across forced and unnecessary. Blindspot’s protagonist isn’t the only one that needs to discover herself. Without a quick improvement of its character-development chops, the series will remain populated by the human equivalent of Jane Doe’s tattoos: surface-level devices only there to serve a conceit, instead of the other way around.
Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.