31 Pilots in 31 Days: The Blacklist

When it was originally on: 2013-present

Original network: NBC

Where you can stream it now: All 9 seasons are available on Netflix, and you can also watch the first season over on Peacock.

Had I seen it before: Nope.

What IMDb says: A new FBI profiler, Elizabeth Keen, has her entire life uprooted when a mysterious criminal, Raymond Reddington, who has eluded capture for decades, turns himself in and insists on speaking only to her.

Why I picked it: As I was trying to compile this year’s list of pilots and was finding it harder and harder to come up with network dramas that seemed relevant, I stumbled across The Blacklist and was utterly shocked to learn this show has been on the air since 2013, and has nearly 200 episodes. Surely this means that a lot of people watch this show and are invested enough to keep coming back for 9+ seasons , yet I had barely heard of it. I also consider myself to be fairly plugged into the entertainment industry and know what different outlets are up to. Learning that this NBC show has been on the air that long without being on my radar made me think that that the chasm between what critics watch and what the rest of the world watches may be even greater than I thought.

I was excited to find an example of a Big 4 network’s somewhat successful attempt to navigate this weird time in television history. This show came out in 2013, the same year Netflix started original programming. Breaking Bad was just about to wrap up, Mad Men was still flying pretty high, and Game of Thrones was coming into its own. It’s not like NBC didn’t see these changes happening around them, so what are they to do? Which shows should they bet on, knowing full well that cable and the streamers will always be playing by a different set of rules? One of those shows they bet on was The Blacklist, and apparently it’s gone pretty well for them so far. The Blacklist exists as a successful network drama that burst onto the scene right when so many people started giving up on network dramas. For that reason, it warrants a closer inspection.

What I liked: Elizabeth Keen is a pretty good heroine for such an action-forward show. She’s simultaneously a relatable every-woman, but also a no-nonsense badass when she has to be. I particularly love the scenes where she’s with Beth, a child who has been kidnapped by a terrorist and later has a bomb strapped onto her as part of a plot to blow up the zoo. It’s an archetype we’ve seen before, but a good version of that archetype.

The first scene also does a pretty good job of immediately catching my attention. A man we don’t know comes in, introduces himself as “Raymond Reddington,” and then next thing we know he’s surrounded by armed guards pointing guns at him. He knees down and puts his hands behind his head; clearly, this turn of events is no surprise to Mr. Reddington. They started it with a bang, and I like that I didn’t have to wait for the show to grab me.

I also have to admit that the big “reveal” at the end of the pilot got me. Elizabeth’s seemingly innocuous husband was hiding wads of cash beneath the floorboards along with several fake passports. I didn’t see this one coming, as they did succeed in making the husband character fairly innocuous. How was an FBI profiler married to someone so duplicitous without knowing? Is the marriage even remotely genuine… or did this character have an altogether different agenda when he married Elizabeth?

What I didn’t like: The pace of this is quite fast, which is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the action set pieces are never placed too far apart; on the other hand, we don’t get much of a chance to wonder about any of the shows’ mysteries before the show quickly informs us what’s going on. “Who is Raymond Reddington?!?!” We get our answer almost immediately. “What is this evil terrorist planning?!?!?” We get our answer almost immediately. The show is scared to let us be confused for more than a couple minutes at a time, and sometimes this worked against it. To make matters stranger, one of the things that perhaps is supposed to be a mystery is not all that mysterious at all, and that’s why Reddington insists on working with entry-level agent Elizabeth Keen.

Right now, I’m pretty confident that Elizabeth Keen is Reddington’s daughter, yet it’s strange to not know if the show actually wants me to know that or not. They make it clear that Reddington had a daughter at one point and abandoned her. They make it clear that Elizabeth Keen’s father left. She appears to be about the right age. Reddington tells Elizabeth that she was abandoned by a father who was a career criminal. Rather than connect these dots into the straight line they draw, Elizabeth is all “How does he know about my family!??!” and the FBI is like “good question, beats us!”

I honestly cannot tell if the show thinks its pulling one over on us and the connection will be some major revelation later, or if this is meant to put the audience a step ahead of the characters. Maybe it’s a bait and switch meant to put this impression in my head and somewhere down the line they’ll have a “gotcha!” moment where I’m wrong. I don’t know. Either way, it’s strange to feel like the show is attempting to be mysterious but doing a terrible job of covering its tracks.

The pilot also couldn’t figure out if Ray Reddington is supposed to be dangerous or not. At times, they’re doing this Silence of the Lambs knockoff where Elizabeth Keen has to descend deep into an underground bunker. At other points, the FBI begrudgingly puts Reddington up in his favorite luxury hotel. Later, he’s back in the bunker. Does the show want us to be scared of Reddington or not? He sounds dangerous… and was at least dangerous enough to warrant that dramatic scene in the FBI lobby at the beginning, but it also seems like the FBI is down to just… let him go if he asks nicely?

There’s also something artificial about ending the pilot with Reddington’s declaration that he wants to help the FBI find more criminals. Now, the show at least has demonstrated that Reddington’s intelligence is probably better than the FBI’s, so you can see why the FBI might be open to this. I do however wish I knew enough to at least guess what Reddington’s motives might be, and I can’t. Believing that Reddington had gotten himself tangled up in some mess where it made sense to turn in one particular criminal wasn’t too much of a stretch. Believing that someone who has spent over 20 years as a “concierge of crime” is suddenly ready to turn in every criminal contact he has is something else entirely. The reason still feels like “because this is a tv show and we need a new case every week” rather than any reason from within the show’s own world. I also just don’t find the concept of “career criminal runs to FBI eager to snitch on everyone” quite as compelling as “career criminal turned in one other criminal, he definitely has more knowledge that the FBI would like to have… but can the FBI get him on their side?”

At this point, it’s also still possible that Reddington is playing everyone. We’re not sure if we should trust him or not, and perhaps that’s part of the fun. It’s just puzzling how the show goes this far out of the way to reassure us Reddington will still be around next week as though there was any notion he wouldn’t be.

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not particularly. There’s other iterations of “what if one of the bad guys helped the good guys catch other bad guys?” and this didn’t put quite enough of its own spin on that to warrant more time. I might google and see if I’m right that Elizabeth is his daughter though.


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