Apparently The Blacklist has brought NBC its highest ratings for a freshman drama series since the turn of the century, and just ten episodes into its run it’s not only been given a full-season order it’s also been given a very early renewal for a second year as well. I’m surprised by this, not because the show isn’t any good (it’s one of the best of the Class of 2013 so far) but because it’s such early days and the show is still so clearly finding its feet by trying on a succession of different borrowed sets of attire as it seeks to find out what it wants to be when it grows up and becomes a proper TV show.
The high-concept premise is that notorious former high-level government agent turned elusive most-wanted fugitive called Raymond “Red” Reddington suddenly walks into the FBI building in Washington DC to calmly turn himself in. He offers to help them capture some of the most evil and dangerous criminal threats in the world – many so successful the FBI doesn’t even know about them – but on one condition: he will work only with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen. A special task force is green-lit with the sort of alacrity only ever seen in time-starved television pilots desperate to lay out their format for the studio execs, and away we go: only it’s soon clear that not only is Red playing a very different game, he is also ten steps ahead of the plodding FBI staff at every turn to entirely his own unknown ends.
Without doubt it’s the character of Red that is the show’s unique selling point and by far the most compelling aspect of The Blacklist. He’s an omnipotent super-villain figure similar to Javier Bardem’s character in Skyfall, and the way that a folding chair for Keen is set out in front of Red’s super-secure cell is an unmistakable evocation of the Clarice/Hannibal relationship from The Silence of the Lambs. After that the show descends into something of a weekly “hunt down the bad guy” formula not dissimilar to Criminal Minds along with some rather generic but well-staged action sequences of car chases and shoot-outs, while at the same time there’s an overlay of the paranoia of treachery and betrayal from the Bourne films, or from 24, Homeland, Alias and Covert Affairs on television. The show even tries out being Die Hard for an episode in which Keen gets to go all John McClane for us for 40 minutes.
It’s as though The Blacklist is still running through its options for how best to use the character of Red – which in almost any series would a guaranteed show-stealer. Put that character into the hands of someone as inventive and talented as James Spader, and you have serious potential indeed. Trouble is, Spader is so riveting in the central role (and the character is also so well written with multiple facets of deception) that inevitably the FBI troops around him tend to pale into insignificance – even Red’s hired team of mercenaries (including crime scene fixer ‘Mr Kaplan’) are far more interesting to the audience. Megan Boone does her best as Keen and after ten episodes is finally emerging as a character in her own right, while Diego Klattenhoff (imported from Homeland) is at last beginning to be fleshed out in the hitherto rather one-dimensional role of hostile by-the-book agent Donald Ressler. Less successful are Harry Lennix as task force director Harold Cooper and the criminally underused Parminder Nagra as CIA liaison Meera Malik who are little more than glorified extras – although at least the wonderful Nagra is not confined to bed in a coma like she was for most of the short run of Alcaatraz. The weakest part of all is that of Keen’s civilian husband Tom (Ryan Eggold) who is continually whining at her to give up all the dangerous stuff, making him intensely annoying even though the producers keep trying to ladle on a “is he really Mr Nice Guy or is he really a deep cover spy?” element to spice him up.
At the end of episode ten heading into a break for the Christmas holidays, the production team seems to have decided that its initial format for sustaining the show on a ongoing regular basis by having a ‘case of the week’ hunting down one of Red’s eponymous blacklist of supercriminals isn’t going to cut it. As a result they’ve thrown things up into the air in such a way that Red has now escaped and is on the run after being threatened by Alan Alda (a lovely one-scene mild-mannered cameo), and the task force that was meant to help him is now mobilised to hunt him down. Questions about why Red chose Keen as his intermediary have very quickly moved to the stage where she is able to ask him point blank if he is her real father (he answers no; we’re pretty sure he means yes) while another ongoing series arc – surveillance on Keen’s house by shadowy figures – has also been blown wide open. What the writers will replace all this with in the second half of the season, and whether they will hit upon something sustainable to wrap around the captivating James Spader, rather remains to be seen.
And that’s why I’m surprised by the show’s very early renewal for a second season. Not because it isn’t good (it is) or that it doesn’t have promise (it does) but simply because it has so many important formative steps still to take before we know whether it be an all-time long-running classic television show, or another short-lived burnout like Twin Peaks or Heroes that couldn’t make a supernova start extend beyond the growing pains of puberty. I hope The Blacklist makes the transition safely and I’ll cross my fingers for it, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet or is as assured of ultimate success as so many others seem to believe.
The Blacklist airs 9pm on Fridays on Sky Living, but is currently on its mid-season break over Christmas and will return early in 2014. No date has been given for S1 to be released on DVD ad/or Blu-ray as of time of writing.
The 2013 US Fall TV season so far
Speaking of The Blacklist as the biggest hit of the US TV Fall 2013 schedule, and before we get too deeply into the Christmas run-up, I thought I’d slip in a few thoughts about ten other debutantes at the ball this year, plus revisit some of the other shows coming back for new seasons that I’ve written about in the past. (Some of the new shows for 2013 – for example The Tomorrow People reboot or NCIS season 11 – don’t appear here as they have yet to start airing in the UK.)
The rookie shows
Dracula (S1 E1-6) Thursdays, 9pm, Sky Living
In which all the familiar Dracula elements are mixed with steampunk and secret society trimmings, tossed into the air and left to fall where they may. There’s a certain freshness and innovation as a result – not all of it particularly effective if truth be told, but sufficient to just about keep me watching to see what happens next. It’s helped by a strong cast consisting of a considerable British presence, from Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as Harker, to recurring major guest stars Robert Bathurst and Ben Miles and on to one-off cameos from Alec Newman, Jemma Redgrave and Andrew Lee Potts. Surprisingly, however, the most interesting performance and character to emerge has been Nonso Anozie’s Renfield.
Marvel – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (S1 E1-9) Fridays, 8pm, Channel 4
I reviewed the pilot and concluded that this movie spin-off had made a solid, safe start upon which it could build. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have moved on from there and as the weeks go by it’s becoming increasingly underwhelming in its lack of ambition. Instead it prefers to stick to small character pieces, the kind of thing that shows absolutely should do at some point – but only after having won the audience’s loyalty with something a bit more attention-grabbing. One ‘bottle show’ taking place mainly on the standing set (interiors of the team’s superjet) would be just about okay in the first season, but having it as the second story is an odd choice – and having another such instalment eight episodes later is starting to look worryingly like either serious creative or budgetary problems.
Bates Motel (S1) Universal
Somehow I stuck with this to the end of the first ten-part season but just as I was with the pilot episode I remain unconvinced that there is really any point to this Psycho prequel. The series came off the rails entirely after six episodes with a whiplash-inducing handbrake turn which essentially dumped all the ongoing plots into the garbage in the most stunningly unbelievable, credibility-breaking fashion possible, but it did at least clear up the clutter for a reboot that led to a moderately effective season finale in which Norman (Freddie Highmore) finally did what we always knew he would. For all the show’s problems, it does feature an impressive star turn by Vera Farmiga as Mrs Bates.
Sleepy Hollow (S1 E1-3) Wednesdays, 9pm, Universal
I disliked the pilot but stuck with it for another two episodes, by which time I hated it so vehemently that I couldn’t stop watching it fast enough. I found it an utter pile of unbelievable overcooked tosh, which is a shame as I was genuinely willing to give it a break purely on the basis of the charm and likeability of the leads Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie, who both deserve much better.
The sophomore shows
Elementary (S2 E1-7) Tuesdays, 9pm, Sky Living
Other than a one-episode vacation to London and the introduction of Rhys Ifans as Mycroft, the second season of Elementary is cruising along pretty much unaltered from the first. That makes it a reliable procedural perhaps lacking in any greater imagination – a comfort fast food version of the BBC’s Sherlock if you like – but it’s hard to be cruel because the end result is probably one of the most likeable and consistently enjoyable hour-long dramas on the TV schedule at the moment, thanks largely to the teamwork of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson.
Arrow (S2 E1-7) Mondays, 8pm, Sky One
After season one finished off a lot of the ongoing plot arcs and even some of the major characters, the question was whether Arrow would struggle to sustain and repeat its first year success in year two. It turns out that we needn’t have worried, with the show seamlessly finding new directions to explore while maintaining the overall mix of drama, emotion, humour and all-out action that Marvel – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can only dream of aspiring to at the moment.
Scandal (S2) More 4
From Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, the first season of Scandal started off with Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) group of misfits tacking a different media frenzy each week. This was fine as far as it went, but frankly a little ho-hum. You certainly can’t say that about its second season, which has seen a presidential assassination attempt followed by a virtual coup d’etat and act of treason, a vote-rigging plot, the pursuit of a high-level intelligence mole who at various times appears to be either the CIA director or the White House chief of staff, and finally a President about to admit on national TV to having an extramarital affair even as his wife nurses their months-old new son. And that’s just the start! Any one of these stories could be enough for whole seasons for other shows but Scandal just blazes through the lot in the most deliciously over-the-top pure pulp enjoyment you’re ever likely to see. It’s basically The West Wing on a chocolate, caffeine and steroid speedball and if you can get over the utter absurdity of it all then it’s brilliant fun, with great writing and a top-notch cast.
Person of Interest (S2 E1-7) Thursdays, 10pm, Channel 5
I initially didn’t much care for Person of Interest but was encouraged to keep watching by comments made on my original underwhelmed review, and eventually I did indeed see the light and penned a much more positive follow-up post about the second half of the show’s maiden year. Season two is proving even better, with some strong stories (much better now there is a sense of arc and continuity, and with many characters saved in previous outings showing up to lend a hand in subsequent cases) and some great chemistry between the leads. Even Jim Caviezal is defrosting nicely, although Michael Emerson as Finch remains the star of the show and his scenes bonding with attack dog Bear have been the absolutely highlight for me thus far.
The Mentalist (S6 E1-7) Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 5
We’re so used to this show consisting mainly of candy-floss-light case of the week outings with only the occasional spice of hard drama from the Red John arc that season 6 has been a quite extraordinary change. The series’ backbone has come unequivocally to the fore in a sustained and thrilling eight-part climax. For those of us used to waiting months between Red John instalments this has been heady stuff indeed, and kudos to the show’s producers for deciding to do this now rather than drag it out for another season and a half to the show’s natural end-of-life. Assuming that this doesn’t prove to be another red herring feint like the season 3 finale, what exactly they will do now after the show’s main raison d’etre has been wrapped up remains to be seen, but I very much hope that they have a new idea that will allow the show to build on a terrific start to the current season.
The Walking Dead (S4 E1-8)
For my money, the first half of season four of The Walking Dead has been the strongest run of the show since the original mini-series (season 2 started well but then got bogged down at the farm.) It’s had moments of character, emotion and true drama, but also some of the most nail-biting terror (the zombie assault on the quarantine wing of the jail in episode 4, “Internment”) even before the ‘mid-season finale’ as it seems we must now refer to such things, in which everything went to hell in a handbasket in the most brutal and explosive way possible as The Governor returned to lay siege to Rick and the others. The only problem is that in delivering this huge punch, the show has expended a lot of its capital in terms of character and locations that have now bitten the dust, leaving you wondering what’s coming next and how many times the show can ‘reboot’ itself like this and still deliver to the same high level?