We are truly in a golden age of television. The advent of the streaming giants have helped greenlight some great shows, but the cable networks have also made the leap from the quagmire of reality shows to help bring some truly unique visions to the small screen.
In the last decade we’ve seen another concurrent phenomenon: the movie star-led TV series. It was initially (and almost certainly unfairly) seen as a step down for big screen stars to front a TV show. This prejudicial hangover has been proved as groundless as the snobbery of those who thought that theatre was the only home for true acting, that the fledgling motion picture industry was an ugly stepchild.
Having worked with the world’s most dangerous and elusive criminals over the past two decades Red has compiled a list of targets, and offers to work his way through said list, eliminating each target, in return for immunity from the law.
This selfless/selfish act propels much of the mystery inherent in the show, and viewers since the beginning have often found themselves with more questions than answers (particularly at the end of the first season). It is essential that an actor of the calibre of Spader is present to engage the audience each week.
From the beginning The Blacklist needed an audience cipher. Much like Watson to Holmes we needed a way of understanding the importance and, crucially, the difference between Spader’s Reddington and the rest of us. But with Megan Boone’s Elizabeth Keen we get more than that. As the only person Red will initially work with, there is a strange trust built up between the show and its audience in this relationship. Their first meeting sets up the distrust and intrigue from the start.
Like the character of Hannibal Lecter Red has an ambiguity about him which leads us, as viewers, to never completely trust him and yet thanks to Spader we are fully committed to his success while never being complicit in his agenda. A show like The Blacklist has a fine hook but it needs the nebulous genius of Spader’s Red to bring us along each week. He’s the perfect host for the show – and each new episode handsomely displays his undeniable attractive qualities. He’s Lecter and Thomas Crown rolled into one, with a little Sherlock in there too. Who wouldn’t want to make the world a better place with this man?
Why this duplicity works so well is that we never know which way many of the more nefarious dealings will go. The character of Elizabeth Keen has been through an awful lot in three seasons, and we have had to swallow some pretty hard things as the revelations about her past, and her current life, avalanche furiously around us. The slow drip of information elsewhere can be frustrating at times, however showrunners Jon Bokenkamp and John Eisendrath are able to tease us enough that we keep coming back. A spin-off series, The Blacklist: Redemption starring Famke Janssen is due sometime next year, evidence that the formula is a winning one.
While the strangely (or not-so strangely?) paternal relationship between Reddington and Elizabeth Keen kept audiences hooked from the start, there are others within the world of The Blacklist which provide us with some great moments of television. The mystery over the central conceit has sometimes undone a show (while many would argue that giving up the name of Laura Palmer’s killer damaged Twin Peaks, I’d disagree strongly), but The Blacklist has grown around the central mystery, and added other characters to spark off Spader’s enigmatic lead.
One of the most interesting pairings of recent times has been that of Agent Donald Ressler, played with a keen sharpness by Diego Klattenhoff. Distrusting from the beginning, there was a simmering hatred of Red apparent in their early dealings, an understandable hangover of having spent five years trying to track him down. But the showrunners didn’t let that single dimension define his place in the series. Through personal tragedy and betrayal (his moment with Bobby Jonica is a series highlight) his maturity brings out the best in the series, helping to highlight the powerful magnetism, as well as the mysticism, of the show’s main character.
This is where The Blacklist succeeds. It manages to turn a twisted take on the procedural crime drama series and populate it with characters whose motives are clouded, agendas opaque and whose dynamics move the grander story forward. Just as Liz’s initial position as a rookie profiler allowed the audience to get to know Reddington slowly and suspiciously, it is her burgeoning trust and increasing ability that mirrors our own. Ressler’s change of heart concerning both Red and Liz is a seismic emotional shift; through some solid writing, and a determination to never go the easy way, it never feels as if we’re being manipulated.
The show’s premise allows for some fine guests star, as the titular document brings in a gaggle of ne-er-do-wells for Red to go up against. Ron Perlman, Peter Stormare, Lance Henriksen and, memorably, Alan Alda have their moment in the sun – and half the fun is seeing these actors get the chance to immerse themselves in some really fine deviousness. Key to my enjoyment was the appearance of Jennifer Ehle, who is great in everything and terrifically impressive here as Madeline Pratt.
There are dozens more – the list goes on a good while. As the show continues, and the criminal rabbit hole gets deeper, more and more bad seeds are unearthed. Seeing Spader’s Red fight to overcome them all becomes addictive.
The mysteries keep on going. The threat seems to grow with each passing season, and in Season 3 it appears that the show ups the stakes to an unprecedented level (fans will know what I’m talking about here). This is undoubtedly Spader’s show, but with an intriguing premise and a determination to grow the characters along with the unfurling plot, you won’t regret taking the plunge.
The Blacklist Season 3 is out on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, the 1st of August.