NBC reinvents The Blacklist: How does Blindspot hold up?
BlindspotAirtime: Mondays, 9pm
Cast: Jaimie Alexander, Sullivan Stapleton, Audrey Esparza, Rob Brown, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Ukweli Roach, Ashley Johnson
Air date: 2015-09-21
NBC has a habit of trying the same idea over and over again. Two years ago, the television network used their popular singing competition, The Voice as the lead into a high-concept crime espionage drama The Blacklist. This concept worked well enough for the network to try a similar series: Blindspot. As in The Blacklist, a person with a great deal of information surrenders to or is found out by the government. That person make reference to an agent (out of the blue) to work with, thus beginning a series of adventures in which the agent and the person with info solve crimes and capture bad guys.
In both cases, neither drama stands up to critical examination: plot holes, insane coincidences, and conveniences saturate the scripts. The big question is: will Blindspot be able to have the same draw as The Blacklist? At this point, it is too early to tell. There are a few differences between the shows that merit notation.
The most clear and obvious difference is Blindspot’s lack of James Spader. Spader played Raymond “Red” Remington as a kind of conceptual coupling of his charming, aloof, and somewhat condescending Alan Shore (of The Practice and Boston Legal) and Hannibal Lecter. The role seems tailored for everything that Spader does best. More important than his suitability, however, was the credibility Spader brought to the show, both through his performance and his persona. It had been a few years since Boston Legal’s final episode when The Blacklist debuted, and it was good to see James Spader being James Spader again.
Unfortunately, neither of Blindspot’s two lead characters have anywhere near James Spader’s level of celebrity or charisma. Jaimie Alexander plays “Jane Doe", Blindspot’s version of Remington. The actress has had several recurring roles -- perhaps most notable as Lady Sif in the Thor movies and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Sullivan Stapleton, best known for his lead role as Themistocles in 300: Rise of an Empire, plays FBI agent Kurt Weller. Both are most capable of negotiating a few of the more absurd tropes of espionage drama, including (but are not limited to) the impassioned pleas to come along on a dangerous mission, and the endless “stay in the car” arguments. Neither of them, however, have a built-in fan base waiting for them to lead another show. On the plus side, they both provide eye-candy, play their characters smartly, and do their best with the material they are given. If the characters are charismatic or likable enough, the audience can overlook some of the series’ more tired conventions.
In the absence of a Spader-like personality, the show’s producers added two structural differences that do provide some intrigue. Both Remington and Doe come to the FBI with information. Remington has his list of criminals the FBI doesn’t know about; Jane Doe has clues tattooed all over her body. The latter premise is significantly more unbelievable than the former, but believability was never going to be the cornerstone of either show. What the contrivance loses in believability, it can more than make up for in narrative potential.
The first and most obvious? It adds a layer of voyeurism to the show. Throughout the episode, director Mark Pellington splices in quick shots of Jane Doe’s tattooed flesh. The producers go to great lengths to ensure that there are no explicate details, but the allusion is sometimes more seductive than the direct statement. Ultimately, though, the absence of a nipple or genitalia in any of the shots only slightly mitigates the salaciousness of this device, particularly when characters refer to photos of the tattoos throughout the first episode. Even though this is the FBI, and a member of Weller’s team, Tasha Oslo (Audrey Esparza) is a computer genius, no one has thought of scanning and digitizing the tattoos?
Second, not having Jane Doe know the meaning of her tattoos changes the dynamics of the tension. Remington knows the power of the information he has, as well as his role of puppet master. Jane Doe has no idea why she has tattoos all over her body. In the hands of a really capable screenwriter, director, and actress, however, Jane Doe could act as the audience’s surrogate. The show teases the audience with one central mystery: who is this marked woman? The fact that she wants to know links her with the audience. As soon as we stop caring about this mystery, everything else becomes irrelevant. This opportunity was squandered in the first episode. When she wonders out loud if she was a bad person and cannot remember, it just seems a bit flat, although this may have to do with pilot episodes needing to include both an origin story and mystery in an hour, which does not give much time for subtlety.
In addition, we learn in the episode that she may have been a Navy seal and is a high-level badass in everything from taking down spousal abusers to reading obscure Chinese dialects. In this way, she typifies the “girl in the box” trope, which was best pulled off in Joss Whedon’s 2002 cult hit Firefly. That series’ arc primarily focused on the discovery of, and ongoing mystery around, River Tam (Summer Glau), who is introduced to the audience literally packed in a box. In both cases, it can be interesting to watch a character -- be it Tam or Doe -- do something remarkable, like read Chinese, and Blindspot does attempt to alter the trope a little bit. Unfortunately, this alteration makes for a serious missed opportunities in the opening episode.
When River Tam emerges from the box, she is frantic, confused, and trying to hold onto her sanity. In Blindspot, a clearly disorientated Jane Doe emerges from a duffle bag in Times Square. We are told that she was given large dose of “Zeta Interactive Protein", a medication used for PTSD victims; her entire system is saturated with drug, giving her a permanent case of amnesia. We also know that all of her memories have been removed from her brain, but that there are no other side effects. Everything she has learned -- from reading Chinese to hand-to-hand combat -- is intact, with no psychotic or intellectual impact. This is the least believable premise of the show: that you can erase huge blocks of memories from the human brain and still have the individual be somewhat sane. It is also a huge lost opportunity. The seduction of The Blacklist is that we never know where Remington stands because he’s such a manipulative bastard. It would be great if we did not understand what was motivating Jane Doe because she was insane, and therefore unreliable.
There is time for this to pan out as the show develops. The creators seem to have left a little wiggle room for Jane’s story to become a contemporary retelling of the 1962 classic movie The Manchurian Candidate, in which Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is programmed to assassinate a politician.
Finally, the fact that Jane Doe is young changes the potential of her interaction with Weller. In The Backlist the relationship between Remington and Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boon) is paternal. The relationship between Kurt Weller and Jane Doe has far more potential to become romantic. Again, this element was not really addressed in the first episode, but if television shows like Castle and Bones have taught us anything, mature and attractive opposite sex adults can’t work together without becoming attracted to each other.
Mixed in with all the tropes and TV clichés, there is enough in the series to merit interest in seeing where it goes. Perhaps the closest connection between The Blacklist and Blindspot is that both shows jump the shark right from the beginning. This is fine if viewers are willing to dismiss rational narratives. The characters are charismatic, and the writing interesting enough to keep the viewer at least somewhat engaged.