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Television Review

‘The Blacklist’ is slick and unenticing

James Spader plays a criminal who turns himself in and offers to help the FBI catch terrorists in “The Blacklist.”David Giesbrecht/NBC/Episodic

‘The Blacklist” arrives with some of the strongest buzz — you know, promotional stonedness — of all the new fall network dramas. For one thing, it’s a primetime vehicle for James Spader, who won a string of Emmys for “Boston Legal.” And for another, it represents the premiere of Spader’s baldness. He’s keeping it real from here on out.

Don’t get your DVR too revved up yet, though. The NBC series, which premieres Monday at 10 p.m., is certainly stylish and expertly paced. This is one of those FBI shows that looks fantastic as it dashes from intense tactical meeting to action-filled shootout and back again, round and round with lots of high-tech communications. The hour is slick, and while it doesn’t traffic in cable’s more complex characterizations, it is never boring.


Spader, too, is never boring, as most-wanted-list criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington, who turns himself in and offers to help the FBI catch terrorists it doesn’t even know exist. His eccentric requirement: He’ll only work with agent Liz Keen (Megan Boone), a spunky newbie profiler. Spader is amusingly smug and hammy, as he manipulates the FBI honchos, Keen, and the criminals who think he’s on their team. He’s a cool, calm, brilliant, and bemused puppet-master, manipulating events while savoring each word that comes out of his own mouth. “You got rid of your highlights,” he says to Keen, dripping with haughtiness; “You look much less Baltimore.”

Red’s insistence on working with Keen mystifies everyone at the agency, including FBI head Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff, Mike from “Homeland”). His personal ad might run something like this: “Handsome, fit Hannibal Lecter seeking a Clarice Starling for fun and adventures, long walks on FBI tarmac. Must love guns.” And the premiere doesn’t explain Red’s fascination with Keen, but, well, he abandoned a wife and child decades ago, and at one point Keen says that she raised herself, so we’re supposed to wonder if he’s her father. That’s not a spoiler; the surprise may be that she is not his daughter after all and that he has more businesslike reasons for his interest.


Here’s the “but” about the show, which was created by Jon Bokenkamp. There is absolutely nothing in the pilot that makes me eager to return, not Spader’s theatrical performance, which seems destined to become monotonous, or Boone, who is fine as Keen, but only that. The plot twists come too fast and they are too flagrantly preposterous, particularly as Red and the FBI track down the mega-baddie of the week. While the developments on “Homeland” are also rather absurd, they unfold gradually and with a little more attention to reality and logic. “The Blacklist” doesn’t waste time making sense, as the focus zooms all over Washington, D.C. Too often, it seems more like a blueprint for a show than a show.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.