The Blacklist‘s pilot episode is a grab bag of different tones ranging from very silly to deeply serious, and its success as a drama will depend largely on which direction it chooses to go in. Luckily, NBC seems to know that its biggest asset is star James Spader, who plays evil ex-military genius Raymond Reddington. Spader plays the part with creepy charm and just a hint of dark irony, mugging without ever winking and generally seeming to simply enjoy himself. If the writers can match that balance, they’ll have a hit on their hands.

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Strange Bedfellows

Reddington, as the promos have so relentlessly informed us, kicks off the series by surrendering to the FBI. Though he isn’t particularly forthcoming about his motivations, he wastes no time making himself useful: he’s able to warn the bureau about a presumed dead criminal mastermind, but refuses to offer any more information until he can speak to rookie agent Elizabeth Keen.

Keen, on the other end of the tonal spectrum, is living in idyllic, romantic contentment with her husband — they’re trying to adopt, they accidentally oversleep sometimes, but their problems are more in the romantic comedy vein than the crime and murder world. That all changes when the FBI storms up to her door to escort her to a holding cell in a secret base — we learn that this is her first day on the job, suggesting that Reddington was waiting for her.

After a couple minutes of creepy small talk, Reddington’s first move is to warn Keen of the impending abduction of a general’s daughter — given how helpful he’s being, he earns placement in a fancy hotel rather than a holding cell. Keen takes it upon herself to personally escort the at-risk girl to safety, but they’re stopped by the terrorist group en route. The girl is taken as Keen vows to find her.

Elizabeth’s problems don’t stop there: when she arrives at home, she finds her husband bound, gagged and bruised at the hands of the mastermind she had attempted to thwart. He’s still there, and he tortures his hostage while interrogating Elizabeth. Once he’s finally satisfied that she doesn’t know anything else about his plan, he leaves her to send her husband to the hospital.

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Feelin’ Stabby

In a fit of rather startling unprofessionalism, Keen then storms into Reddington’s hotel room and, as her frustration mounts, punctures his neck — one would normally be fired and/or arrested for such unethical treatment of an unarmed prisoner, but I guess these are special circumstances.

Reddington uses his transfer to the hospital as an opportunity to escape, meeting up with his terrorist friend and subtly passing off his tracking device on him. Around that time, the general’s daughter surfaces in the park with a bomb strapped to her back. When the FBI catches up with their trace, they manage to shoot and kill the terrorist leader before he can detonate the bomb manually.

Unfortunately, there’s still a running timer on the bomb; that leaves diabolus ex machina Reddington to bring in his own Ukranian bomb squad specialist, disarming the dangerous chemical weapon and then making off with it. He goes back into custody, apparently holding no ill will toward Keen for that whole neck-stabbing thing — he still speaks only to her.

While her husband recovers in the hospital, Keen stumbles upon a secret box of his containing a foreign passport and a gun. It seems that he’s involved in quite a bit of secretive spy stuff, and it seems that her best chance at figuring it out is to work with Reddington — here’s hoping she can contain herself from stabbing him again. Seriously, that was ridiculous.

The Blacklist definitely has a few solid assets on its side in its ambition to distinguish itself in the fall lineup. Its most obvious ally is Spader himself, as his name and likeness have dominated the show’s promotion far in excess of his actual use in the pilot episode. Other advantages include a reasonably compelling premise and some neat visual flourishes in the action sequences, but they’re at odds with a good deal of improbable writing and a somewhat unfortunate tendency toward humorlessness in the more dramatic scenes. Much like Elizabeth Keen herself, I’ll be approaching The Blacklist with interest, hope and caution.

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(Image courtesy of NBC)

Ted Kindig

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV