Megan Boone and James Spader
Tonight at 10 p.m., NBC and CBS face off with rival, high-profile suspense dramas. Of the two shows, the better one by far is on – I cannot believe I am writing this – NBC.
That’s right. The Peacock Network, which has had a dismal time when it comes to launching new hits in recent seasons, has a potential game-changer in The Blacklist, a new action thriller that marks the very welcome return of three-time Emmy winner James Spader to series television. It’s not only the best drama NBC has fielded in a long time. It’s also one of the best shows of the new fall TV season.
As the series opens, fresh-faced Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (newcomer Megan Broome) is heading off to start her first day as an FBI profiler in the agency’s headquarters when she and her bookish husband (Ryan Eggold) are startled to see a helicopter and several unmarked cars swarming their building. Liz is spirited away to a classified location, where FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) drops a bombshell: Raymond Reddington (Spader), a fugitive at the top of the 10 Most Wanted list, has just walked into the Washington, D.C., headquarters and surrendered. He has a proposal for the FBI, but only if he can talk to her. Liz is baffled. She and Reddington never have met before, nor do they have any personal connection she knows of, yet in their very first meeting, he freaks her out with intimate knowledge of both her and her family, stuff that not even the FBI knows about her. More important, though, he tells her that a dangerous Serbian terrorist has entered the country intent on settling an old score with a highly ranked Pentagon official. A little girl’s life hangs in the balance, and he wants to help Liz stop this potential catastrophe.
Tonight’s pilot episode is a tense hour that follows Liz and her colleagues as she tries to stop the terrorist from carrying out his plot, but more than that, it sets up the big questions at the heart of the show: Why is Reddington obsessed with Liz? What does he want with her? How can she keep her surprisingly dangerous new job from upsetting her life with her new husband, who is intent on adopting a child?
The psychological connection between Reddington and Liz obviously echoes the eerie relationship between Agent Clarice Starling and mad genius Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, seasoned with the fascinating ambiguities that Alias used to do so well. The Blacklist doesn’t feel like recycled goods, however. It just reflects the work of a creative team that knows how and when to borrow from the best.
I’ll leave the show’s many other surprises for you to discover on your own, but let me just close by reporting that Spader’s work in this show just may be the best performance of his career. It’s scary, sly, charming, diabolical and very funny. It would be a huge mistake to miss him, and this very promising new series.
CBS’ new Hostages, on the other hand, set off my Hogwash Detector within the first five minutes, as I watched sharp-jawed FBI Agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) shoot and kill a bank robber disguised as a hostage after Duncan noticed – from a distance of 40 yards or more – that the bad guy’s shoes didn’t match his suit. Clearly he discarded the notion that he was merely looking at an innocent hostage with no fashion sense. A relatively minor style misstep and Duncan (correctly, if inexplicably) pegs this stranger as being worthy of multiple bullets to the chest.
That early scene actually has nothing to do (I think) with the main story, which revolves principally around Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), a gifted surgeon at fictional Maryland College Hospital who has been selected (for what turn out to be crass political reasons) to remove a suspicious lump from the lung of the American president (James Naughton). Ellen is honored but not terribly intimidated by the assignment. After all, it’s a routine procedure.
Or at least it was until Ellen returns on the eve of the surgery to the posh suburban home she shares with hubby Brian (Tate Donovan) and their two teenage kids. Ellen doesn’t know that her magazine-ready life is concealing a lot of secrets. Brian’s business is failing, and he’s involved in an extramarital affair. Daughter Morgan (Quinn Shephard) has just discovered she’s pregnant by the secret boyfriend she sneaks out each night to see, and clean-cut son Jake (Mateus Ward) is seriously in debt to a dangerous drug dealer.
As if all that’s not enough, Ellen comes downstairs after a pre-dinner shower to find a home invasion in progress, with her family held at gunpoint by four persons wearing ski masks. Their leader pulls Ellen aside to deliver an ultimatum: The intruders will kill Ellen’s family unless she takes steps to ensure that the president dies on the operating table the next morning.
I’m going to stop this recap of the pilot here in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I won’t even reveal how Duncan and Ellen’s story lines intersect. I will say, however, that, even though CBS is describing Hostages as a “limited series,” I frankly see no way the show will be able credibly to stretch out this situation over several weeks.
Then again, given that scene with Duncan and the bank robber, apparently credibility isn’t going to be a huge component of this show (which, for what it’s worth, is beautifully filmed and directed).
Toni Collette, Mateus Ward, Tate Donovan and Quinn Shephard (seated from left)