The Blacklist is one of the very few certified hits of what may well be the least interesting fall TV season of the present century. As with other things that are as plainly true as they are inexplicable, from the anti-vaccination movement to the fact that our mothers once did it with our fathers, there is nothing to be done about this except try to process it, and possibly understand it. It can’t just be the lead-in from The Voice. Over at Slate, Willa Paskin calls The Blacklist “pure pop” and congratulates it on delivering “its no news with a fresh, fun attitude.” She actually makes it sound like an entertaining show, a guilty pleasure worth saying a couple of “Hail Mary”s for.
But the centerpiece of her explanation for the show’s appeal is that it “makes you like the bad guy without feeling bad about it,” with the clear implication that this is some kind of feat. I’ve long been under the impression that many TV critics think it’s harder, and more unusual, for an audience to like and relate to a bad guy than it really is. When The Sopranos debuted, almost 15 years ago, part of the awestruck critical response to it was based on this idea that something practically unheard of was happening. TV audiences had become so grown-up and sophisticated, so accepting of the idea of moral ambiguity, that they were were willing to watch weekly shows with protagonists who did bad, bad things. But more than 60 years earlier, people had lined up to watch movies in which characters played by James Cagney or Bela Lugosi did bad, bad things, and there wasn’t anything especially grown-up or sophisticated about it. It just proves that, rather than always wanting to identify with someone likable and nice, most people sometimes want to dream themselves into the skin of someone who’s powerfully lawless and amoral, who has the will to go after what he wants and who isn’t going to feel guilty after he’s gotten it. You don’t have to throw the audience much of a bone to get the mass audience to cheer for someone who does despicable things, if he’s witty or sexy or engaging enough to blot out everyone around him; the makers of the Silence Of The Lambs movie were able to get people cheering at the sight of Hannibal Lecter free and at liberty to kill again, just by giving him a sick joke and a target who wasn’t evil or homicidal but just kind of a douche.
Because TV is thought to be a homier medium than movies, and one strongly dependent on the viewer’s personal identification with the regular characters in a weekly series, it took a long time before someone like David Chase took the plunge and put someone whose way of life was morally indefensible at the center of a show. But there had been ripples years before that, when a show like Wiseguy or, later, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, brought on a terrifically attractive bad guy, like Sonny Steelgrave or Spike, and made him an almost-equal partner in the ongoing narrative. So now we’ve got Red Reddington, whose rap sheet apparently makes Tony Soprano’s or Walter White’s look like detention-hall stuff, and who doesn’t have the endearing, relatable family surroundings that made them the stuff of series heroes: TV dads gone wrong.
Tony and Walt have often been described as “Everyman” figures. Red is snotty and superior, and the thrill of seeing someone acting that way to powerful law-enforcement officials when he apparently ought to be in the dock at the Hague must do something for a lot of people, so much so that they don’t mind that most of his jokes actually suck and his repartee is both overinflated and lame. Everything about Red is a little hypothetical, and that includes not just his evil genius and exceptional taste, but his crimes as well. I said “apparently,” because the show still hasn’t laid out much in the way of specifics regarding his past crimes; all we really know about his dark past is that it’s so dark, it’s awesome!
This is lazy and lame, but it has its uses, in terms of keeping him just this side of likable. Tony Soprano and Walter White were presented as likable average joes, and then their shows went bout testing the viewers’ loyalty to them by having them do ever more horrible things. Red used to do horrible things; while you enjoy him, the show says, feel free to imagine whatever horrible things are least likely to get in the way of your rooting for him. For all the noise the chorus makes about his dastardliness, the Red we see is only an antihero in the same way that Gregory House was—because he’s rude to the duller characters who mainly exist just to bear the brunt of his rudeness. The main difference is that House would have burned the hospital down if his writers had failed to provide him with better material than this.
“Frederick Barnes” is the best episode of The Blacklist since the pilot, because it’s the first episode that’s actually served up an interesting villain played by a good actor who doesn’t have a well-worn master’s degree in mustache-twirling. Barnes is, in fact, played by House’s old sidekick, Robert Sean Leonard. He’s a specialist in the development of biochemical weapons who Red calls “a savant of government-sanctioned mass killing,” though when he unleashes his latest creation on a subway train and wipes out everyone in the car by giving them a fast-acting version of a debilitating illness called “Kurz disease,” Red is stymied for an explanation: Why has this shy chemist of death left his lab to get his hands dirty by playing serial killer?
It turns out that Barnes has a son, and the son has Kurz disease. Barnes is wiping people out in mass quantities as part of his trial-and-error work developing an antidote. Besides lending a nice monster-with-a-broken-heart quality to Leonard’s character, this plot twist enabled him to look eloquently sad while killing people and stealing their bone marrow; I’ve complained before that none of the villains on this show ever seem to enjoy what they’re doing, but at least this guy had a reason to be down in the dumps. Leonard also managed to balance out the long face with a suggestion of deep, intellectual immersion in what he was doing. Sadly, this makes it that much worse when, at the end, Elizabeth prevents him from giving his son the finished antidote, which so many people had given up their lives for. She yells at him that he shouldn’t do it, because the antidote is untested and might kill the boy; Leonard yells back that the boy would die anyway. They debate the matter briefly, with him winning every round, right up to the point where she shoots him. Then she goes home, where her possibly duplicitous husband is waiting for their second meet-cute of the day.
Leonard’s worried, anxious eyes and his combination of bloodthirsty ruthlessness and solicitous bedside manner give the show something it hasn’t had up to now, though the show scarcely seems grateful to him for it. He doesn’t even merit a scene with Red, and both characters would benefit from one. Instead, it toys with the idea that the two of them are sort of the same when you got down to it, at least in terms of their family issues. The one bad thing we know Red did was abandon his family. In tonight’s episode, he goes to the trouble of buying the house he and his wife and little girl once lived in, so that he can literally blow it up—to help him, he says, escape the memories of what happened there, which haunt him to this day. All The Blacklist has asked of us up to now has been that we enjoy Red, and I don’t doubt that I’d be up for the assignment, if only he were more enjoyable. But I dread what might be coming now that the show seems to want to make us feel sorry for him, too.