Is The Blacklist Today’s Columbo?

If NBC's 'The Blacklist' wants to level up, it could do worse than to take a leaf out of the playbook of one of the network's classic dramas

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David Giesbrecht / NBC

Why is NBC‘s The Blacklist as ridiculously watchable as it is?

There are plenty of reasons that shouldn’t be true. The hook is shamelessly lifted from The Silence of The Lambs, with an additional mystery waiting to be explained in the background (Oh, Lost, what have you done to television?). Outside of James Spader (and arguably co-star Megan Boone), the rest of the regular cast have the thankless job of playing a series of generic, interchangeable expeditionary machines instead of, you know, actual characters. Oh, and then there’s the entirely predictable plots each week (Spoiler: Red Reddington is, inevitably, behind it all no matter how unlikely it seems). And yet, it remains an oddly addictive show.

And then it came to me: The Blacklist is today’s Columbo, and that alone is reason enough to keep watching.

Columbo is one of those shows that’s been due critical reappraisal for some time, but has somehow managed to avoid it. Perhaps it ran too long (from 1968 through 2003, albeit with an eleven year break and network swap, from NBC to ABC, in there) or, maybe, Peter Falk was one of those actors who, like James Spader, is so easy to pay attention to that the idea of applying any kind of critical thought seems almost frightening, in case you realize that the show was actually kind of terrible and coasting on the lead actor’s charm all along.

In Columbo‘s case, that’s not the case. (Well, in the earliest episodes, at least; for those who have never seen the show, its NBC run is available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly and is worth checking out). Long before it became a self-parody in the way that almost all long-running television shows do, Columbo was something that delighted in misdirection, using Falk’s considerable charm to disguise the fact that it quietly unpicked the detective genre it worked within as it went along.

(MOREThe Blacklist Gets Second Season)

To start with, there was no mystery in each murder mystery — we saw the murder happen on-screen before Columbo even arrived. The episodes tended to end with the arrest of the murderer, which also robbed us of any reassurance that everyone else involved in the melodrama was going to be okay afterwards, which most shows eagerly provide. Even Columbo himself was all subterfuge, with almost everything we saw of the character coming from another character’s point of view. All we got from him — again, at least in the first few years — was a purposeful façade of the clueless, shambling detective…until the very last moments, when he explained everything.

Sadly, The Blacklist isn’t near the meta-playfulness of Columbo just yet; it relies too much on the dual format of “episodic procedural”/”slowly unfolding uber-arc” that’s become the norm in TV crime dramas (despite the fact that, if we’re being honest, no one actually cares about Elizabeth’s husband or the box under the floorboards). There remains an uncomfortable insistence that Spader’s “Concierge of Crime” Red Reddington is merely one part of a larger team instead of the gloriously melodramatic focus for the show. Give that last one some time, though; long-running shows inevitably end up focused on their most magnetic players (eg. How I Met Your Mother, by now the Barney show).

But at least The Blacklist has the ingredients necessary for contemporary Columbo-esque greatness. We have Spader at the center (or, center-adjacent, at least), gleefully enjoying the larger-than-life quality of his character, as well as villains played by recognizable actors, who we can root against for reasons beyond their criminal activities. On Falk’s show, there was always an element of class warfare in play as Columbo regularly proved that being rich and successful didn’t let you literally get away with murder, while in Spader’s we have characters who are not only criminals, but also on some level misrepresenting themselves within society and fooling the common man for nefarious, selfish reasons.

If there’s one lesson that Fox’s Sleepy Hollow — the true breakout hit of this year’s many new dramas — has to teach, it’s that you can’t go too wrong taking a step outside of the boxes into which shows are stuffed these days. The Blacklist could recreate itself in Columbo-esque ways. It already has an unpredictable central character; all it needs is to start misleading its viewers (and other characters) on a regular basis, and we might have a new classic on our hands. Let’s start by getting Spader some kind of canine sidekick.

2 comments
TAZTlh
TAZTlh

I love this show.  James Spader is totally the draw.  Liz is second and the rest are totally interchangeable as stated in the article.

Rustyballs
Rustyballs

I am addicted to the Blacklist. James Spader is an actors actor. Boston Legal was a classic, that got shut down. I am glad that James Spader has survived the move.