At first glance, and maybe at second glance too, James Spader looked like the only reason to tune into Sky Living's new crime drama The Blacklist. He plays Raymond “Red” Reddington, an internationally wanted terrorist with a taste for fine dining, swanky hotels and meandering, flirtatious banter with policemen. In short, he's a primetime-friendly Hannibal Lecter; Hannibal Lecter without the face-eating. Didn't we always say that Hannibal Lecter would make a great dinner-party guest if it weren't for all that troublesome face-eating? Well, here he is.
This pilot episode began with Reddington, in sinister tinted glasses and a hat he must have picked up at the Breaking Bad garage sale, strolling into the FBI headquarters to surrender. He wanted to do a deal, to lead them to the names on his “Blacklist” of dangerous criminals. “I'm talking about the criminals that matter,” he explained patiently (they can be a bit dense, these FBI agents). “The ones you can't find, because you don't even know they exist.” The catch? He'll only communicate with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie FBI profiler just about to begin her first day on the job.
James Spader could play this role in his sleep, of course. He's got the erudite patter down from years playing lawyer Alan Shore in The Practice and Boston Legal, the villainous credibility from his recent casting as mutant robot baddie Ultron in the next Avengers movie, and as for the supercilious smile? Well, that just comes naturally.
Best of all, should Spader begin to drift off into a typecasting-induced coma in the middle of filming a scene, his weariness could easily be ploughed back into the characterisation. However languorously Reddington delivered his zingers – “I think I smell the stench of your cologne, Agent Cooper... Smells like hubris”, the FBI agents never stepped on his lines or tried to hurry him along. He was the most magnetic character in the room. They were enthralled.
Enthralled, but thankfully not defeated. Spader's flamboyant central performance in The Blacklist is sufficiently balanced by the unshowy, sturdy performances of a few well-cast supporting actors. Henry Lennix as Agent Cooper was a comforting presence. True, he's not the most expressive actor on the small screen, but then isn't a frown-frozen face exactly what you'd expect from the FBI's deputy director?
Diego Klattenhoff is another one who knows how to accessorise a government uniform with a cross expression. Here he plays the strait-laced Agent Donald Ressler, but you'll know him as Brody's cuckolding army chum Mike Faber in Homeland. Agent Ressler didn't have much to do in this first episode, but based on their instant dislike for each other, it's a fair bet he'll be smooching with married Agent Keen before the season is out. Once a cheater, always a cheater.
Bonus telly-addict points to anyone who recognised the actor playing Reddington's mysterious assistant. Squint a little and imagine his face obscured by bong smoke and a beanie hat. That's right, beneath the slick suit was our old friend Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad! (Better known as the actor Charles Baker).
As will be obvious to anyone with a dusty VHS copy of Silence of the Lambs at home, the only character relationship that truly matters in The Blacklist is the one that will develop between Red and his obsession/protégée/perverted love interest Elizabeth Keen. We've met Agent Keen before. She's just like all the other trouser-suited homicide detectives, hot-shot coroners or junior district attorneys that march around the sets of CSI and Law and Order, and apparently even she knows it.
In an example of either meta-gag or simple expedient storytelling there was a scene where Keen reeled off her own character traits in response to Agent Cooper's request that she profile herself: “My colleagues call me 'Sir', they think I'm a bitch. Like most kids who raised themselves, I can display narcissistic behaviour, I can be withdrawn, disconnected, I have a deep yearning to understand and relate to the criminal mind...” To that list, I'll add shiny hair and a relatable messy personal life.
Did you like Elizabeth Keen? Did you find Raymond “Red” Reddington disquietingly attractive? Are you tantalised by the prospect of their complicated relationship becoming ever more entangled? It's on this crux that your future enjoyment of The Blacklist rests. Sadly, I fear Reddington isn't the only aesthete who's lately developed some sophisticated tastes. British audiences have been spoilt by the layered story arc of The Wire and come to expect the detailed characterisation of The Sopranos.
What a shame it would be if our palates were now too refined to enjoy the simple pleasure of a formulaic TV crime thriller on a Friday night. The Blacklist wasn't gritty, it was glossy – but glossy can be good too, y'know.
Grace Dent is away