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What Makes ‘The Blacklist’ So Popular? Why, James Spader, Of Course!

Where to Stream

The Blacklist

Life is full of hugely popular things that I do not fully understand. Flight, for example. Or organized religion. Escalators, too, if I have to be honest. (“Where do the stairs go?” I wonder, but I digress.) Add another example to that list: the immensely popular cat-and-a-few-hundred-mice show The Blacklist, which boasts the distinct title of being one of the most watched shows on Netflix.

Consider, if you will, the fact that during peak hours Netflix hogs approximately 35% of the bandwidth of US internet. The Blacklist is about 3.5% of Netflix’s bandwidth at any given time (sharing that dubious honor with kid-friendly princess-fest Once Upon A Time, which holds roughly the same viewership.) This means that, during peak hours, The Blacklist accounts for around 1% of US internet bandwidth (!).

The Blacklist, for the uninitiated, centers around the merry hijinx of James Spader as Raymond “Red” Reddington, who at the very beginning of the pilot episode turns himself in to the FBI. He then requests that he only speak to a fledgling FBI agent Elizabeth Keen. This may sound a little bit Silence Of The Lambs and, in The Blacklist‘s best moments, it’s clear that they’re aiming towards that. But then there’s the problem of what the show is aiming for and what actually takes place on screen.

It would be very easy to knock actress Megan Boone for her portrayal of Elizabeth Keen. So I will. (Sorry, Megan.) She initially gives the character what seems to be a Minnesotan accent that disappears around the third episode. While it would be completely remiss to dismiss her entire performance based on a wandering accent, one has to wonder what isn’t being translated between her performance — which flits between near late-period Nick Nolte levels of loucheness and small-child-on-a-long-car-ride-needing-the-bathroom levels of urgency — and the editing room. Megan’s performance might shine in other circumstances, really, something is way lost between what she puts out there and what actually ends up on the screen.

James Spader is the real draw here, and the show knows that, with his throw-pillow faced mug plastered on hundreds of subway signs and major billboards across real life Manhattan. He spends half his time locked up in a giant metal cube and the other half of his time galavanting around wearing an array of jaunty hats. His performance is downright rude. He doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching the show intently or whether you happen to have him on in the background; James Spader was always good at playing a winking, knowing version of “aloof” throughout his career, but here he might as well be taking a hammer to what’s left of the fourth wall. There are times when Spader seems to know that the show is falling apart around him so he does what can best be described as burping the show: like a skilled babysitter, he puts the entire series on his shoulder and pats it’s back and tells it everything is going to be alright.

It’s an honestly impressive feat, sort of like watching Johnny Carson successfully interview a burrito. James stops short of blowing raspberries on your stomach and jiggling his keys in front of your face, but you get the point. James Spader couldn’t be phoning it in more if he was standing in an actual phone booth quoting E.T.’s lines from E.T., but it’s all forgiven as all you can do is stare back in childlike wonder at him as he puts you to bed and tells you a story about catching a lot of bad guys.

Oh, the bad guys. There’s apparently hundreds of them and they all have silly names like “The Courier” and “The Stewmaker” which also double as episode names. One can only wonder if in later seasons they’ll resort to “The Butcher” (obviously) “The Baker” (yeah) and “The Candlestick Maker” (because fuck you). It gives the whole series the air of a bedtime story made up by a someone skimming the Yellow Pages for inspiration.

There are flashes here of a show much smarter than it lets on to be. Perhaps, give the staggering number of people who watch the show online, the show could run with its more positive aspects and allow itself to get a bit weirder and a little bit more loose. Because right now, the show telegraphs its intentions sometimes whole acts in advance: you know how the bad guy is gonna die, because you see him setting up the device in the first act.

The show should not work. It often doesn’t. But not unlike a metaphorical Cadillac in an allegorical garage, it’s not about what it CAN do, but what it COULD do. Polish it up and fine tune it and you could have a real gem, but right now, thanks probably in part to network notes, The Blacklist is the body of a Cadillac with the engine of a Prius, looking the part but caught between what it wants to be and whats under the hood. Because car analogy.

It’s gonna have to pick one or the other. It’s a highly popular smart show masquerading as a dumb show. One has to wonder what the show could be if it decided to be both highly popular and highly intelligent at the same time.

Decider

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