Raymond Reddington: We've gotten off to a rocky start.
FBI Asst Director Cooper: You've killed three people.
Reddington: I'm not perfect.
The Blacklist is a television (and wonder of wonders in this day and age, a network television) show of a particularly gleefully silly type. It's about law enforcement in the same way that Burn Notice is about espionage- that is to say, it immediately invokes all the tropes it can so you don't think about what's going on too much. Then it revs up the snowmobile on the tarmac runway, pours a trail of leaded gasoline down the centerline and firewalls the throttle, holding a lit highway flare in its teeth.
Well, for a television show, it does, anyway.
There are no spoilers here, because all this takes place in the first five minutes of the show. Plus, it's on all the posters. The show begins with FBI Most Wanted fugitive Raymond 'Red' Reddington walking calmly into the J. Edgar Hoover building (the headquarters of the FBI, in case you hadn't guessed), handing his passport to the receptionist in her armored box and saying 'Assistant Director Cooper, please. I don't have an appointment, but he'll want to see me.' With that, he turns back to the giant FBI seal on the floor, rolls up his shirt sleeves, kneels in the center and puts his hands behind his head and waits for the heavily armed men to arrive.
So. Reddington has turned himself in. But, you see, it's because he has an agenda. He has a list, the titular list, of criminals so heinous that the Bureau doesn't even know they exist, in many cases. And he wants to make a deal, where he helps the Bureau nab them. That's the setup. Throw in a Clarice Starling-like brand new FBI agent and profiler (Elizabeth Keen) and a task force full of various law enforcement and intel cliches (albeit with more Middle Easterners than usual) and bam - you got a carnival.
Raymond 'Red' Reddington: It's called the Blacklist. That sounds exciting! That's why we're all here, of course. My wish list, a list I've been cultivating for over 20 years: politicians, mobsters, hackers, spies.
The whole thing is basically an enormous setup mystery - or rather, a stew of setup mysteries - that let the show writers gyre wildly and ecstatically around the world chasing terrorists and criminals and unknown shady bastards while tantalizing you into continuing to watch by carefully metering out dribs and drabs of the arc plot across the season. This has become a well-known game. Ever since Babylon 5 took the leap of using arc plot outside the miniseries, television shows have jumped on it, and The Blacklist is one of the better players - it doesn't rely too heavily on the arc plot. This is a problem when shows clearly are utilizing a storyline that hasn't been written yet, and where the writers clearly have no idea what the hell they're going to do.
So, we get Monsters of the week (human ones) and we get bits and pieces of information. Our proxy in all this is Agent Elizabeth Keen, who on her first day on the job finds out that Raymond Reddington, who has just surrendered, will only speak with her. She has no idea why, and as you may imagine, this does not make her popular.
We spend two seasons (so far) finding out why this is the case, and it's a relatively fun trek. Plus, there's one big reason to watch this show. That's James Spader. He's having so much fun here. It's on a par with Kevin Spacey playing Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor, or Terrence Stamp shouting "KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!" (Hm, I wonder why both my examples involve Superman...nevermind). Striding the world in a Gulfstream jet, wearing a spiffy three-piece suit and gold-rimmed square aviator sunglasses and a natty hat, this man faces danger with a Colt 1911 because let's face it, Glocks are plastic pansy guns for metrosexual criminals. Or Federal Agents.
The show followed an arc very close to what I had predicted to myself, after the third episode. I've just finished the second season, and while I've been surprised, I haven't been surprised more than maybe 40% of the time. And the surprises weren't all that big. But you know what - it's done competently enough, and clearly those involved are having enough fun, that I'm looking forward to season 3.
Red: You can't judge a book by its cover. But you can by its first few chapters, and certainly by its last.
Plus, of course, a whole bevy of TV and movie faces parade across the screen, happy to have been invited to come play. Some show up behind the screen, as well - James Spader reunites with an old co-worker from the Joel Schumacher and John Hughes days when Andrew McCarthy directs three episodes. Paul Reubens shows up, although it may take you a bit to recognize him. Alan Alda and David Strathairn are semi-regulars. Peter Stormare snarls his way onscreen. Lance Henrikson and Ron Perlman. Etcetera.
Give it a try. I don't know if you'll like it, but I can tell you that I'm having fun.