The concept is ridiculous. The world's greatest criminal mastermind, a man wanted by every government agency in the United States, gives himself up in order to work with a rookie FBI profiler in capturing some of the most heinous and deviant criminals on earth, many of whom no one even knows exist. His motivation is a mystery, but clearly has something to do with his obscured relationship with the FBI newbie.
In many ways, NBC's The Blacklist is a mess. It is overly complicated, difficult to follow and completely unbelievable -- and not in an "aliens live among us" way, but rather an insane web of conspiracy theories so implausible they collapse in on each other practically every week.
Then there is the idea that the FBI would let a known terrorist run loose, even access their computers and give orders to a cardboard cutout of a division commander simply because he promises them bigger fish in the frying pan.
Like I said, ridiculous, yet I keep watching and the reason is simple: James Spader.
Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, the aforementioned semi-fugitive who is as sharp-tongued as he is brutal, part killer, part dandy. He's quick with a laugh and filled with stories about crazy former acrobatic lovers or wild parties in a parts of the world we know nothing about, but wish we did. He's the most interesting criminal in the world and Spader is perfect.
While much of the rest of the cast -- including the regularly weepy, doe-eyed Megan Boone as the agent (Elizabeth Keen) Red is working with, protecting and keeping in the dark simultaneously -- runs the gamut from stereotypical to downright boring, Spader's Reddington is something different. He's not just a terrorist with a heart, but an impossibly layered personality viewers are just beginning to unravel.
It would be nice to credit the story arc as the reason why I keep coming back to the show each week if it weren't so bizarre and often nonsensical. Much like any good serial drama, it carries an overriding plot line throughout while keeping the stand alone episodes interesting for the casual one-off viewer. (In the series X Files, the episodes not dedicated to the often tiring pursuit of aliens were referred to as "creature features," which, considering the atrocities perpetrated by many on The Blacklist, is an apt moniker here as well.) But, the reason it is ultimately successful is because Spader is so damn compelling. When he is on the screen, it is 100 times more interesting than when he is absent.
In a recent Saturday Night Live skit featuring Lena Dunham as a confused new recruit to the group portrayed on Scandal, her character is flummoxed by not only the rapid-fire pace of what is happening around her, but also by how incredibly capable everyone is. Every time a scene on The Blacklist is set inside the underground FBI "post office," I imagine Dunham's shocked expression as they instantaneously dig up information no database could procure with hours of searching.
But, then in walks Red and what was once a stupefyingly uninteresting premise has new life.
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Spader displays all of that trademark quirky intensity that has landed him a diverse array of roles. From douchebag rich guys to pent up sexual deviants, Spader has a way of making the obtuse seem not just normal, but enviable. As Red, he gets to combine all the traits of a rock star, a gentleman's gentleman and a stone cold killer. He's a terrorist and a gadfly. And somehow, it is remarkably appealing.
I find myself rooting for Red and imploring (to myself) Lizzie to trust a guy who murdered her father (though, to be fair, her father was near death from cancer anyway and practically asked for it). But, who can help it? When Red slips through a pawn shop into some speakeasy that serves only the finest clients with imported cigars and cognac we can only assume cost more than our mortgage, or schedules a "discreet" landing of his private jet so he can get pierogis and bring a killer to justice, it is easy to be enraptured.
Spader would seem to have the singular ability to portray Red as both wildly idiosyncratic and ruthlessly focused. While older and slightly less svelte than his youth, he still has that mix of charm and style tenuously held in place and superimposed over a kind of dis-ease. It's as if he is keeping his inner demons in check, but just barely. It is that taut control that deepens the sense of Red's depravity but also makes him human, fallible and even fragile.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Spader in this role or The Blacklist making it out of development without him. Fortunately, he has brought Red to life and TV is better for it.