James Spader Runs the World in 'The Blacklist'

“Everything about me is a lie.” Funny thing is, when Red says this, we are inclined to believe it.

The Blacklist

Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: James Spader, Megan Boone, Harry Lennix, Diego Klattenhoff, Ryan Eggold
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Creator: Jon Bokencamp
Air date: 2013-09-23

“Everything about me is a lie.” That's how Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) describes himself early in The Blacklist. The funny thing is that, like so much of what Red says, we are inclined to believe it.

The pilot opens with Red walking into an FBI building to turn himself in. He is a former government operative who went rogue, selling information to the highest bidder for years. His criminal activities landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and he avoided capture because he's that smart. All of which is to set up that now, Red's not surrendering due to a sudden urge to clear his conscience. He's looking to settle some scores.

To that end -- as well as to endear him to viewers -- Red doesn’t lie so much as he withholds. He is very straightforward about having prepared a list of reprehensible criminals on whom he wants to exact revenge, dubbing it The Blacklist. But just why he thinks working from within FBI custody is the best way to achieve his retaliation is unclear. What is clear, pretty much immediately, is the value of his intelligence for authorities looking to close cases. Red delivers proof that an international terrorist the FBI thought was dead is actually in the US and plans to set off a chemical weapon in DC. Let the cat and mouse game begin.

As that last phrase suggests, the show is prone to clichés. Foremost among them is that Red insists that he will only talk with one agent, rookie profiler Liz Keen (Megan Boone). Like Lecter and other odious masterminds before him, he has reasons for such a demand, reasons he won't share for now. The fact that it is Liz’s first day on the job only adds to our feeling that we’ve seen this before. Add to that her tragic past and struggle with the idea of starting her own family. We meet her talking to her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold) about an appointment with an adoption agency that afternoon. In a bit of clunky dialogue the viewer suspects was meant to be funny, Liz actually says, “You know I’m not going to let this job come between us and our family.” Yeah, right. A few scenes later, her newfound entanglement with Red has made her miss the adoption appointment.

Already, our interest in The Blacklist depends on Red’s underlying motivations, even if or because we don't know them. They'd better be intricate and compelling. Unspoken, they underlie the scenes between Red and Liz, obviously evoking those between Lecter and Clarice. Liz also seems a bit unbalanced, willing to stab Red in the neck when he pushes her too far, which brings to mind the possibility that she might reach the complex depths of another similar figure, Carrie on Homeland.

That these relationships set young women alongside men with more experience, or more brutal experience, makes them more traditional than new, but they also speak to current social and political anxieties, having to do with gender and sex, of course, but also with power and perception.

This relationship structures the plot specifics as well as such broad and sometimes obvious thematics. By the end of the pilot, it is clear that Red is playing a long game and Liz is key to his plans. An intriguing twist suggests her involvement in his scheme is more complicated than the setup suggests, but we knew that. Moreover, she may also be more complicated than Red anticipates, which might make the introduction of this so familiar dynamic more a point of departure than a retread. That will be helpful because, based on the first episode, The Blacklist's plot makes little sense. It involves Red kidnapping a general’s very young daughter and then using her as a bomb delivery mechanism: the elaborate maneuver is too unnecessarily risky to be the product of a supposed criminal mastermind.

The Blacklist also suffers from the same affliction that troubles so many so-called thrillers, which is to say, the bad guys seem to be operating with near omniscience while the FBI agents sometimes lack even basic common sense. After taking the little girl into protective custody, the dozen or so agents transporting her to safety drive onto a bridge where a team of workers claims there is a hazardous materials spill. This doesn’t raise any suspicions among the supposedly experienced agents until the guns come out. All the viewer can think is that every car in America has GPS these days, but the FBI can't spot a fake traffic stop. Such missteps needn't detour The Blacklist, however, as long as Red and Liz remain at odds and in league.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.