Entertainment

03.31.14

‘The Blacklist’ Is Dead Without the Psychotic Red

NBC’s agonizingly schizophrenic drama is almost unwatchable in the absence of the mesmerizing James Spader. How to fix it? Kill Agent Keen, a flimsy version of Clarice Starling.

Rookie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) tracked a suspect to a building, not realizing she was actually at a “watch post” manned by her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), who appeared to be a mild-mannered schoolteacher but unbeknownst to Keen, is actually an baddie hired to marry and spy on her. As Keen investigates (without first drawing her gun or calling for backup, but we’ll get to that in a moment), at one point she is just inches away from her cornered husband, whose secret is seemingly about to be revealed.

This moment in last Monday’s episode of The Blacklist should have been one of the most harrowing moments of the year, but instead, the near-showdown was almost completely devoid of tension. It highlights the biggest problem with The Blacklist as the show barrels towards the conclusion of its debut season. The NBC drama is one of this year’s few true breakout hits: it regularly draws 11 million viewers each Monday night, and adds another 7 million when Live + 7 ratings (which include seven days of DVR and video on demand viewings) are factored in. But the agonizingly schizophrenic show has failed to even marginally develop its characters aside from James Spader’s mesmerizing central turn as Raymond “Red” Reddington, who after spending 20 years brokering deals for the world’s most sinister criminals, now helps the FBI catch them.

Each week, the show pursues a villain from Red’s “blacklist,” the file he’s been compiling for 20 years of sinister, off-the-grid villains, with ominous monikers like The Chemist, The Judge, and The Stewmaker. (I assume it’s only a matter of time before we meet The Candyman, The Captain, and The Architect.) When Red is commanding the screen, Blacklist is one of broadcast TV’s most riveting series. When he’s absent, however, it’s almost unwatchable.

Simultaneously insouciant, whip-smart and psychotic, Spader’s Red is (sorry, Dos Equis) the Most Interesting Man in the World, yet trapped in a show that forces him to interact with some of the least interesting characters on TV. This has been evident from the pilot, when Red sauntered into the FBI, where at the time he was one of their 10 Most Wanted fugitives, calmly surrendered and confidently started making demands. Chief of all: he’ll only work with Keen, who was starting work that very day. While Keen (and Megan Boone) seemed to be overmatched from the start, a pilot rewatch reveals that she starts off feistier and more unpredictable than she is at any other point in the series. In a fit of rage, she punches a hole in Red’s carotid artery, threatening to let him bleed out if he won’t give her the answers she needs.

I miss that version of Keen, whose regression is particularly frustrating given the vital recalibrations made to Red’s character this season. In the pilot, as Red was encased Hannibal Lecter-like in an all-glass holding cell, you could see Spader eyeing his surroundings and licking his chops, calculating which piece of scenery he would ingest first. It would have been all too easy, as early episodes threatened, to make Red as cartoonish as a Joel Schumacher Batman villain. Instead, they dialed back on the camp and made Red far more fascinating—and dangerous.

Rather than going over-the-top, Spader has chosen a markedly more intriguing route. While he’s always the only one on screen having fun, he’ll frequently pull back the curtain to reveal the heartache and torment lurking underneath, especially in a rapt monologue about the torment of discovering his wife and child’s murdered corpses, or a recent conversation with Keen about how one comes to terms with taking a person’s life. More heart than ham, Red has become an intriguingly complex character, a 10-course-meal the likes of which broadcast television rarely concocts these days, and Spader has dug into each new dish with relish.

But not even a gifted actor like Spader can sell Red’s nonsensical obsession with Keen. “Oh, I think you’re very special,” Red keeps telling her, as if by repeating it he’ll somehow will it to become true. He’s also offered up his own life to save hers on more than one occasion, explaining, “I will always do what I have to do to keep you alive.” Red seems to be under the same spell that entranced everyone on Smash whenever Katharine McPhee’s Karen Cartwright started to sing: a contrived connection that doesn’t translate to viewers on the other side of the screen.

If this collection of FBI and CIA agents tracking down Blacklist criminals is truly the best of the best, we’re all in serious trouble.

So why exactly does Red care so much about Keen? The show seems to have dismissed the most obvious theory, that he is her actual father. At one point, when Keen asked Red if that were true, he replied, “I wish the answer were as simple as the question seems. But the truth is, the question isn’t simple either.” Alrighty then! But regardless of who she is to him—and does it even matter at this point?—the tedious Keen isn’t worth his time.

For much of the season, the Keen criticism has been directed at the ridiculous wigs defiling short-haired Boone’s noggin. The hairstyles have only gotten worse — they’re now doubling and tripling down on the insanity by changing them up multiple times a week—but that’s the least of Keen’s problems. The pilot was dripping with Silence of the Lambs parallels (including a matching “quid pro quo” agreements between Red and Keen), and while Blacklist has retreated from that dynamic, the Keen/Clarice Starling comparisons remain apt. Starling, who like Keen was also fresh out of Quantico (she’s still enrolled there during Silence), may have been green but she was acutely intelligent. You understood Lecter’s fascination and attraction. That’s not the case with Keen, who routinely is outwitted multiple times an episode, and has shown little evidence of her alleged dazzling grasp of the criminal mind. How could someone who discovers a hidden box containing cash, multiple passports with her husband’s picture and a gun that was used in a classified, unsolved homicide, be so quick to drop suspicions that Tom isn’t who he claims to be?

Yet whenever the writers do try to enrich Keen, Boone resists them at every turn. Week after week, the character discovers new jaw-droppers—her home is under video surveillance, Tom has been attacked and is in a coma, her adoptive father has died and most recently, her husband is indeed the awful man that Red has long claimed him to be—but Boone barely registers a reaction, much less any long-term angst or trauma. While Spader adds countless layers to his character, with her blank, heavy-lidded reactions (as if even she is bored by her performance), Boone strips all of hers away.

And it’s not just Keen: her incompetent coworkers have gotten their training at the same facility responsible for turning out the simpletons who perpetually drop the ball on The Following and Dexter. If this collection of FBI and CIA agents tracking down Blacklist criminals is truly the best of the best, we’re all in serious trouble. Without Red, who is always at least 12 steps ahead of them, they wouldn’t catch a single criminal. Most episodes feature the team crowded around a desk, staring blankly until Red finally steers them in the right direction, usually with a wry line like “I don’t know, might it be conceivable your people actually missed something?”

As professional scowler Donald Ressler, Diego Klattenhoff (Mike from Homeland) is more than just a stick in the mud, he’s a mighty oak. He, too, seems overwhelmed by the material, particularly in the March 17 episode, “Mako Tenida,” which focused on the murders of several of his former colleagues, and eventually, his ex. ER vet Parminder Nagra, as CIA agent Meera Malik, fares no better. She was briefly outed by Red as a mole and then allowed to recede into the background again. And as FBI Assistant Director Harry Cooper, the usually engaging Harry Lennix is stuck making empty threats when it comes to trying to control Red, barking “That’s not gonna happen!” before almost immediately ceding to his latest demand.

The Blacklist is far from the first show with a supporting cast that couldn’t measure up to its dynamic lead. During Scandal’s abbreviated first season, it wasn’t clear what any Olivia Pope’s fellow Gladiators actually did—or whether any of the show’s actors could hold a candle to the force of nature that is Kerry Washington. Then, as they were slowly brought into the fray, the characters and cast largely proved themselves up to the task of sharing the spotlight. But that isn’t happening here. As a show evolves, especially in its first season, it needs to play to its actors’ strengths (which new comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife have done superbly this year). Blacklist hasn’t bothered.

So far, the only characters up to the task of standing toe-to-toe with Red have been the guest stars: Jane Alexander, Alan Alda, Lance Reddick, and Dianne Wiest. But most of those characters are, unfortunately, dead. To save the show, and keep Spader from shouldering the load himself, it’s time for the Grim Reaper to start picking more appropriate targets. For starters, Blacklist needs to stop wasting its chances to bump off the supporting characters, like in the Die Hard-esque “Anslo Garrick” two-parter in December, where terrorists in pursuit of Red hijacked the FBI facility and threatened to murder everyone. It was a huge disappointment when they did not. Between deaths and job transfers (everyone except for Aram, the lively computer guy, played by Amir Arison, who also made an impact on Girls as Hannah’s coworker Kevin, seems expendable), they can easily repopulate next season with a new, and hopefully more dynamic, group.

That’s a good start, but it still wouldn’t address The Blacklist’s wigged elephant in the room: it’s a two-lead show with only one compelling lead. Which is why NBC should be considering an even bolder move: bumping off Agent Keen, whose demise would give the show—and Red—just the jolt it needs. If Keen did die, Red, who has already lost so many close to him and has sworn to do anything to protect her, would be a broken man, and Blacklist would be even better for it. (Think of how shattered he was in “Anslo Garrick” as his watched his colleague get murdered.) Then bring in a more worthy adversary and partner, also with a personal connection to Red’s past, and allow Blacklist to finally realize its full potential.

In a recent episode, Red warned Assistant Director Cooper that “a war is coming. I’m certain things will get considerably worse before they get better.” Until the half-enthralling, half-sleep-inducing Blacklist gets serious about fixing its mistakes, it will be doomed to the same bleak fate.