The television series Blacklist was recommended to me. I had seen an ad for it before it came out and it looked rather good. I have long been a fan of James Spader — at least since he got to play characters that weren’t trust fund babies (although he did them well). Since Netflix was pushing it on me, I decided to watch an episode. The first episode is very much like The Silence of the Lambs, but without the cannibalism. Later episodes stray from this formula and the series gets tired fast.
By far, the biggest problem with the show is that it has only one really compelling thing: James Spader. When he’s on the screen, all is fun. When he’s not, I was wondering why I was watching. Much of the show revolves around FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen. She is a profiler who seems to have no insights into human nature at all. She is married to the world’s perfect man — a fourth grade teacher who may or may not have a secret past along the lines of Jason Bourne with piles of cash, piles of passports, and a handgun. Really: it’s like they just went into the property department of Universal Pictures and stole the safe deposit contents from The Bourne Identity and put them in a wooden box.
The plot arc of the first season is what I call “kitchen sink” writing. There is so much junk thrown into the story that absolutely anything could be really going on. Red, the James Spader character, could be Keen’s real father. Or he could be a friend of her father who while he lay dying made Red promise to watch out for his daughter. Or he could have killed Keen’s father. Or maybe her father is not dead. It could be any of these things and more. And this is to mention nothing of Red’s past. Or Keen’s husband. The problem is that the show is not going anywhere. It is bouncing around and then the writers will decide which place to stop.
In a sense, this doesn’t matter. People love this. My father is addicted to Resurrection. People enjoy the journey. The problem is that stories dependent upon mysteries that are never well explained always leave a bitter aftertaste. I remember how much I like Twin Peaks, only to find the ending totally disappointing. It isn’t that I had a problem with the father being the murderer. It was that the ending was random. What’s more, it didn’t even comply with the plot up to that point.
On a micro-scale, Blacklist works equally badly. Each episode flits around. The main plot of each show would fit easily inside a half hour. So that leaves the other commercial television half hour (21 minutes) for side “drama.” Often in the middle of some ticking time bomb plot, Keen and Red find time for some banter — often on a park bench. Not that I’m complaining! The main plots are without exception boring and totally unbelievable. All the people on the blacklist are so clever that the FBI doesn’t even know they exist. But then they are caught through various mistakes that such clever people would never make. It is like Edward Snowden starring in “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.” Oh my God! He’s calling from the extension upstairs!
A very troubling aspect of the series is its casual use of torture. In this way, Blacklist is the intelligent man’s 24. But of the half dozen episodes I watched, this seemed to go away. I hope that is a trend. Torture itself doesn’t go away. But I have no problem with torture. Growing up, I watched a lot of cinematic torture. What has been really bad since 9/11 is that we see the supposed good guys torturing. This is sick and an indication of a culture in steep decline.
Despite everything, I still found myself draw to the show. Harry Lennix as the Assistant Director of FBI counterterrorism adds a lot of humanity to a show that has too much disregard for human life — especially in the form of Keen’s partner Donald Ressler and torturer in chief Meera Malik. But after a while, everything is flying off in all directions. I came to realize that I didn’t really care what happened to any of these characters. And in that way, I am right with the producers. But the sad thing is that this is that Blacklist is an above average show. And that doesn’t speak well of us as a people.