Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
In the highly specialized field of handsome, mostly expressionless young romantic leads who have transformed themselves into baroquely entertaining hambones, not even Johnny Depp has anything on James Spader. In his first fling as a TV star, Spader played Alan Shore on The Practice, a salvage mission that turned into a 22-episode backdoor pilot for the spin-off series Boston Legal. The signature Spader character is a spoiled pussycat with a relaxed attitude toward ethical standards and accepted social norms, and a tendency to come off as pervy but charming. In his movie roles, Spader has been able to adapt this style to everything from playing the scary menace (2 Days In The Valley) to the slightly less scary Prince Charming who sweeps the heroine off her feet (Secretary), but he’s never been funnier than when he was using it to send up the traditional TV stereotype of the crusading attorney as dashing white knight.
After a disappointing, half-hearted stint on The Office, Spader returns to series TV in a role that means to make more direct use of his creepy-crawly qualities. In The Blacklist, he plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, international man of mystery and “concierge of crime.” The pilot episode is vague on the details of his criminal activities, but to judge from the demonstration of his connections and skill set in the pilot, he appears to be The Wire’s Proposition Joe on a global scale. Once upon a time, this man was on the U. S. military’s fast track; brilliant, ambitious, and not yet 30, “He was being groomed for admiral.” Then he disappeared, abandoning his career, country, and family, and became, according to the actor reading his character biography to a roomful of people who presumably already know it, “an equal opportunity offender” whose “only allegiance is to the highest bidder.”
In the opening sequence, Spader, dressed like a vampire taking a stroll in the sunlight, walks into the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. and turns himself in. The Feds want to stick Spader into the darkest, dankest black hole this side of Gitmo; Spader has other ideas. He has a list of the worst, most dangerous criminal scum—terrorists, mobsters, crooked politicians, spies—he’s encountered in his 23 years of service to the international underworld. (“It’s called the blacklist,” he purrs. “Sounds exciting!”) He wants to work with the government to bring these bastards down, and he’ll only do it if Elizabeth Keen, a rookie FBI profiler played by Megan Boone, will agree to play Clarice Starling to his Hannibal Lecter. The role gives Spader free rein to indulge in his smug, self-amused antics and pampered shtick—he insists on being put up in only the best hotels, where, of course, he’s already a familiar and much-loved guest. But he pulls back on the flirty lecherousness that has often been his stock-in-trade. When he meets Boone, with whom he’s said to be “obsessed,” he doesn’t even make a dirty joke about his being in handcuffs. This naturally raises suspicions that there may be a big “Elizabeth, I am your father!” scene in the offing. His insistence that she’s singled out because she’s so “special” certainly doesn’t ring true. As Boone explains, because of her troubled background, she’s a messed-up loner who everyone at school regarded as “a bitch.” Yet she looks and acts like someone who’s just about to meet her Mr. Right in a breath-mint commercial.
Not much thought seems to be put into The Blacklist, except for the kind of hanging plot threads and mystery cliffhangers that are supposed to hook an audience and guarantee that they’ll come back to see another annex built onto the show’s “mythology.” Spader is fun to watch in a shallow, ornamental way, but he’d be worth caring about if there were some limits to his character’s abilities. Instead, he’s not just brilliant, but also practically unbound by the laws of time and space; he can slip custody at will, and instantly show up anywhere he likes. He makes the Feds seem like utter dummies, which does not count as a great way to make use of Harry Lennix.
As a thriller, The Blacklist is pure comic-book stuff. Which is fine. Except that, as anyone who saw The Cape or the later seasons of Heroes knows, that particular gear on NBC’s fun generator has been busted for some time now.