The Blacklist, which premiered last night on NBC, is something like a mash-up of Silence of the Lambs, Alias, and Homeland. All of which makes it a little schizophrenic and the kind of thing that might have sailed out there and died within three episodes in other circumstances. But in these circumstances, the ones that led to James Spader being cast in the role, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the screen. He’s as oily as you’d expect, and possibly even a little more so, in the role of Raymond “Red” Reddington, a spy-turned-rogue now come in from the cold. His motives for turning crimehunter are a little opaque in the pilot, but by being so deliciously slimy Spader doesn’t need the script to give them to him. It’s all there in those heavy eyelids. But can that last beyond an episode or two? Or a season?
Maybe television doesn’t yet know the answer to that question. We’re hitting something of a twilight of the antihero in this medium, as it happens. Dexter wandered off into the woods last Sunday, with a barely heard whimper; Walter White will flip the switch on his own oblivion at some point this coming weekend. Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson has never quite had the same grip on the public imagination as the other examples. Cue the executives casting about for a new archetype to occupy the chattering television classes, and you get someone with a lot of potential, like Red Reddington, and not much design other than: boy, James Spader is awful cool.
When I saw the promos for the show, I misread the evil-genius-meets-young-FBI setup as a serial-killer premise, but the truth is this show might as well have been about one. The creator denies that Red is a psychopath, but he might want to take another look at the way the character’s been set up. The motivelessness, the indifference to the kind of havoc he might create by appearing in the FBI lobby, the way he’s clearly getting off on being the puppet master: all of these are the hallmarks of a person with no scruples whatsoever, totally self-interested. That makes him different from the serial killer of serial killers Dexter Morgan, who had a mission we could care about, even as we knew it was morally compromised. Even Walter White started out in an impossible financial position that instantly ignited the audience’s sympathy. This show, instead, relies on a puzzle format to keep the plot moving, and the rest is all about how interested the audience is in watching someone like Spider glide oleaginously around its screen.
But wait, some of you might say, in fact we already had a sociopath of this sort on television, one who was immensely popular, and thus proved this might be a winning formula: Tony Soprano. Tony’s goals (ugly New Jersey conspicuous consumption) and situation (born into it) did not exactly provide sympathetic story hooks, either. Which is true, but as many people seem to have forgotten, much of The Sopranos’ appeal was its engagement with a sense — however unfair — of the frustrated masculinity of its main protagonist. Set aside the more literal iterations of that — Tony’s irritations with his wife and daughter and parade of mistresses — and you can see it permeated most of the show. The decline of the mob’s power was a pretty direct analogue to the decline of a certain kind of male power in society. Tony’s frustration with his occasional powerlessness — and the rages he’d get into when things went wrong — mirrored the sense of his civilian counterparts that the center wasn’t holding. This opened the door for David Chase to deliver that signature Sopranos punch: those moments where you realized the likable asshole was really a murderous thug.
The Blacklist doesn’t seem to have any such higher aspirations. Red’s just going to unleash the hounds and wait to see what they bring back. Our entry into his inner processes will be delayed, if we ever get it at all, in favor of dropping puzzle pieces in our lap one by one to keep us tuning in next week. And in the context of the television landscape today, that’s just not enough to keep critics and bloggers writing about it. Some other oomph is required if they want to keep that new-psychopath-in-town-type buzz.