By Erik Grove
Welcome back to an all-new, all-different edition of Erik’s Weekly Watch! First, I want to apologize for last week’s interruption. A demon virus burrowed into my lungs and brain, enfeebling my jaunty column-writing faculties and rendering me a miserable mess of coughing, sleeplessness and unfulfilled taco cravings. This plague, a formidable adversary I have named Andre, has been vanquished though and my sights this week are firmly set on the fall finale of NBC’s the Blacklist.
If you like overplayed reality television, terrible sitcoms and franchise procedurals NBC is the network for you. The once-great network that made Jerry Seinfeld and George Clooney household names, that unleashed Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing and gave us the motherlovin’ A-Team has been in tailspin since the turn of the 21st century. NBC has become a 30 Rock parody of itself churning out safe, mediocre programming, edgy, critically-acclaimed comedies and dramas that struggle to find a big audience and uninspired dead-on-arrival flops. And then, last season, a man with impeccable taste in tailored suits and haberdashery showed up and brought a little bit of hope.
While I personally adore and recommend Hannibal to everyone that will listen (or can’t get away from me fast enough to avoid hearing about it), the Blacklist is NBC’s most successful original and genuinely compelling straight-down-the-middle one hour drama since ER. It’s not hard to figure out why. The show’s vitality and bite comes almost entirely from James Spader. Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington welcomes the audience with his easy charisma and moral ambiguity. He can go from haunting sadness to viciousness and then wry humor in the same scene. Spader’s performance and the character that he and the showrunners have created for him to play is an instant classic TV villain at once intoxicatingly likeable and absolutely horrifying.
The show has other bright spots. The rest of the cast ably accompanies Spader and many of the villains of the week (particularly in the first season) have been incredibly memorable. Several very talented directors have stepped behind the camera of this show including Joe Carnahan who directed two episodes in the first season including the pilot and the first season’s spectacular mid-season episode, Anslo Garrick. The production is slick and the action sequences are among the best on network television.
Here’s the unfortunate bit though. Except for Spader, the first third of this sophomore season has been surprisingly tepid. The weekly villains seem less inspired, the subplots with the supporting cast seem more obvious (Agent Ressler’s little foray into prescription drug abuse hasn’t really added anything to the character or the show) and most of all the show has remained very focused on big plot threads leftover from the first season. I still very much like the show but it feels like there’s been a weight holding it down. I was very pleased to find then, that with this fall season finale most of the outstanding baggage has been resolved.
Since the last third of the first season the Blacklist has been very concerned with Berlin. Berlin was the big bad MacGuffin mystery going into the first season finale and carried over into the second season. Unfortunately, the more of Berlin we saw, the less interesting I found the whole storyline. As much as I love Peter Stormare and had a lot of optimism for his casting in the recurring role, the character he played, a KGB-era Russian out for revenge and right out of a 1980s Cold War action movie, really didn’t seem like much of a match for Red. He wasn’t scary or nearly clever enough to be a satisfying foil, a problem I imagine will continue to be a challenge for the showrunners. In this fall finale, the Decembrist, the Berlin plot is definitively resolved and that resolution ends up being really satisfying. Stormare and Spader have a very civilized, respectful reckoning that seems absolutely appropriate and character-driven.
Also resolved, for now, in the Decembrist is the subplot with Agent Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone) and her super-secret (and by super-secret I mean pretty predictable) boat secret. This storyline, which I’m trying to talk about vaguely so I don’t spoil it for anyone that didn’t see it coming a mile away, had potential but it didn’t seem emotionally connected enough to Keen. You would expect that the choices Liz has made in the last few months would have a significant impact on her but it just doesn’t connect in a satisfying way. I don’t expect to see Boone play the character any differently. I don’t expect there to be any real story consequences other than a recurring character continuing to recur. There’s a hint of a new mystery at the end of the episode but it hardly seems like all of the time we’ve dwelled on this in the last 8 episodes was required for that.
Overall, the Decembrist was a necessary deck-clearing exercise. There’s a new MacGuffin introduced that can lurk in the background, the ominously named Fulcrum, but otherwise the rest of season 2 can hopefully get some fresh air. I wouldn’t say that the Blacklist has been unwatchably bad up to this point but it hasn’t been up to the dizzying heights of earlier episodes. The Decembrist gives me hope and anticipation for what’s coming next when the show returns after the Super Bowl.
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. You can read his work at www.erikgrove.com and follow him on Twitter @erikgrove