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The Blacklist: America’s Next Top Wicked Genius

James Spader delivers a charismatic performance in an ever more common role, but it's still in search of an interesting show

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David Giesbrecht / NBC

He’s a master puppeteer and manipulator. He’s refined and enjoys the sumptuous pleasures of life. He’s eccentric, charismatic and smarter than the cops he comes up against (or, at least, smarter than all but one). He is the villain you can’t take your eyes off.

He’s the Wicked Genius, and he’s a very popular guy on TV right now (even as cable seems to be passing its Peak Antihero phase with the endings of Dexter and Breaking Bad). Some version of him appears on White Collar, The Following, Hannibal and tonight’s new CBS drama Hostages (in which Dylan McDermott plays a rougher-edged baddie with the goal of killing the President). He’s the marquee attraction, too, in NBC’s The Blacklist (Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T.), which at least has the sense to cast him with James Spader, an actor delectably hammy enough to make you briefly forget how often you’ve seen him, and pretty much everything around him, before.

The Blacklist is brazen in how thoroughly it’s built from various off-the-shelf thriller parts. Raymond Reddington (Spader), a Navy officer turned traitor turned fugitive, turns himself in at FBI headquarters one fine day, only to proffer a deal: he has information on a terrorist, but he will only deal with brand-new agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). The reasons are secret, but the pilot points up their bond: he, a sly criminal who left his family, she, a feisty agent whose criminal father abandoned her as a girl.

Reddington walks Keen through her first case, a by-the-numbers revenge plot against Washington, D.C. Things explode, a child is endangered, and as TV is especially fond of right now, we see more than one closeup stabbing. A time bomb literally ticks. But there’s more to come, much more, as Reddington reveals he has a list of master bad guys — the blacklist! — that he will share with the FBI, if they keep him living in the style to which he is accustomed and partnered with Keen. (The list, presumably, is about the same as the number of episodes needed to make syndication.)

So: a little Silence of the Lambs — on a network, mind you, that already has a Hannibal — mashed in among a simplified 24-style terrorist shoot-’em-up. Wait, did I say a little Silence of the Lambs? The Blacklist has Spader run every page of the Wicked Genius Playbook: luxuriating in a five-star hotel room, sneering at his handlers while cuffed to a chair, savoring a fine glass of red wine with an epicurean reverie.

Spader runs the plays well. He’s a ham, but an effective one, which is to say that he lets the audience enjoy his own sheer enjoyment of playing the outsize role, with every droll one-liner and cultivated sneer. (“I think I smell the stench of your cologne, Agent Cooper. Smells like hubris.”) It’s a fine trick to indulge in this kind of role without seeming self-indulgent, but Spader has a gift for letting the audience indulge vicariously through him; he’s the Guy Fieri of scenery-chewing. Decked out in a black hat, exuding cockiness like a $1,000-an-ounce oil, he owns every second he’s onscreen.

But to the extent that Reddington is compelling, it’s because Spader is doing all the work. He gets little help from the pilot script, which feeds him some sharp lines but imagines him as a generically debauched mastermind. In an early exposition scene, an agent describes him: “This guy’s an equal-opportunity offender, a facilitator of sorts who’s built an enterprise brokering deals for fellow criminals. He has no country. He has no political agenda. Reddington’s only allegiance is to the highest bidder.”

Whew, that was close! You almost made him interesting! Thank God you gave him the most neutral motivation imaginable right off the bat! Don’t get me wrong: I don’t need Reddington to have a political agenda in particular. But I do need him to have an agenda — a reason why he is who he is and does what he does. I need him to care about something, because caring about something makes characters interesting in the long term. Without that, he’s just a charming plot device. (In the first season of Homeland, for instance, the interesting thing is not just that war hero Nick Brody wants to attack Washington, D.C., but why he wants to.)

Like too many other shows using the Wicked Genius device today, The Blacklist assumes that simply being wicked and a genius is in itself enough to make Reddington fascinating. But that’s less so the more times this character pops up. At some point, like Veronica in Heathers, you just want cool guys like him out of your life.

Now, in fairness, The Blacklist leaves plenty of room to reveal heretofore unseen motives and character history for Reddington down the road. (In fact, that’s almost a requirement in today’s twist-heavy terror-thriller genre.) The pilot suggests that there is plenty left to reveal about his past, and Keen’s, and those of the people around her. My hope is that the show ends up like Person of Interest, which started with a provocative premise (the power of crime-fighting surveillance), immediately downplayed it, then gradually became a better show as it realized that, you know what, it should maybe do something interesting with the show’s most distinctive premise beyond being a crime procedural.

The Blacklist, though, seems to be setting itself up to be largely a bad-guy-of-the-week show, and the pilot’s first caper is not too promising in that respect. So the show’s success moving ahead is going to depend on how interesting Reddington and Keen’s backstories become, and how much those are overwhelmed by the self-contained ticking-time-bomb scenarios. For now, though, how much you enjoy The Blacklist depends on whether you enjoy watching Spader enough to overlook all the times you’re not.