In Praise Of 'The Blacklist,' Violence And All
I’m not complaining about “The Blacklist.” Quite the contrary; I admire it as the boldest and most consistently entertaining new fall series on any network. Like CBS’ “The Good Wife,” it is one of those rare broadcast series that would seem right at home on basic cable. James Spader is giving yet another rewarding portrayal of a powerful man grappling with equally powerful demons, which some critics have dismissed as somewhat cartoonish -- a shallow observation that says more about the talents of those critics than the abilities of the always reliable Spader. He plays master criminal and cutthroat manipulator Raymond “Red” Reddington with great style and bravado, an ever-present touch of dark humor and occasional heartfelt compassion. But Spader can chill the viewer’s blood in an instant when the story demands that “Red” do so.
I’m not even bothered by the ultra-violence on dazzling display in many episodes of “The Blacklist,” although I could do with fewer plot turns in which dozens of innocent people die in order to set storylines in motion. I guess the epic mayhem and madness in a number of basic and pay cable shows has desensitized me to such an extent that there is almost nothing I can’t watch. I was riveted rather than repulsed by much of what I saw in last week’s episode, including the sounds and sights that came with a man who had been shot in the leg having the wound sterilized and cauterized without benefit of painkillers and the blood and brain matter of a terrified young woman being sprayed across a glass wall when the vile villain of the week shot her in the head. I’ll admit I cringed during last night’s episode when one man cut the upper chest of another, stuck his fingers into the opening and began feeling around for a tracking device that had been implanted there.
So why am I so accepting of content in “The Blacklist” that I might once have objected to, or at least expressed concerns about? Aside from the general feeling of being desensitized in recent years by escalating violence and brutality in television and other media, I think it still comes down to the overall quality of the show. The production values and attention to atmosphere have been first rate -- watching these characters enter simple factories or warehouses or abandoned buildings and discover the horrors within often feels like witnessing a descent into hell. If the intensity of it is uniquely unrelenting, that’s because it represents a confluence of excellent storytelling, direction and acting. “The Blacklist” is blessed with all of these qualities.
As noted above, Spader is superb here -- can anybody imagine anyone else in the role? But the cast around him doesn’t get enough credit, especially Megan Boone as FBI agent Elizabeth Keen, with whom “Red” is mysteriously obsessed. Keen seems more delicate and fragile than the typical TV action heroine, but she constantly surprises with her fearless determination and willingness to put herself in direct danger. Diego Klattenhoff as her partner, agent Donald Ressler; Ryan Eggold, as Keen’s mystifying husband Tom, and Harry Lennix, as FBI chief Harold Cooper, are also fine -- as are the many actors who portray the unique supporting and recurring characters that have filled out the show’s canvas.
A word about the “vile villains” on “The Blacklist.” These are terrific roles for character actors. I imagine hundreds of them are hounding their agents for “Blacklist” auditions. In addition, you’ve got to admire the casting of Alan Alda as the “big bad” of the season on this or any other dramatic program. On the flip side, isn’t it great to see veteran actress Jane Alexander cast as a kick-ass official from the Department of Justice?