Watching this show, I thought back on an old Monty Python character. He was a general played by Graham Chapman and he would occasionally appear in the middle of a comedy sketch, deeming it too silly, and forcing it to end. While this character was originally just an easy way for Monty Python to get out of sketches they had no way of ending, he also served as a force of constant self reflection, the nagging mother within us all that's saying, "I'm sorry but this is just no good at all." The reason I bring up the "Too Silly" general is because if he were working the modern TV drama circuit, he'd be pulling overtime just to keep up.
We all know that we're living in the golden age of television, because people keep saying we're living in the golden age of television. Which means that dramas that aren't pushing the limit somehow have no chance of becoming hits. It was just a few years ago that all you needed to do was produce a show that was exceptionally well made. Now, you need to produce a show that is exceptionally bat-shit insane.
And in walks James Spader in a fedora. Welcome to The Blacklist, where the stakes are high, everyone is a spy, no one can be trusted and James Spader is wearing a fedora. The basic premise of the show is that James Spader plays Raymond Reddington (AKA Red, not joking), an ex-military guy who one day up and defected, leaked a bunch of classified information to anyone with money, and became a very successful information broker to the powerful and dangerous. Now, several decades later, he walks into FBI headquarters and wants to hand over every criminal mastermind he's ever worked with, on the condition that he works only with a fresh-faced rookie profiler, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), whom he's never met, and with whom, he has no apparent connection. In the vein of shows like Scandal or Covert Affairs, the show gives a newbe a sweet break, but also implies some sort of sinister reason for doing so. While we're at it, this pilot takes a number of pages out of the playbooks for Scandal, Covert Affairs, and Revenge. In that the concept is so laughably out there (Spader practically twirling his mustache, he's so Villainous, with a capital "V"), yet the dramatic beats emerge intact. There's one scene in particular in which Keen's husband is held prisoner and Boone's performance is exceptionally moving, despite the ludicrous situation. She speaks directly to her husband, totally aware that his life is out of her control. So her priority becomes making sure he's calm. It's a beautiful approach to an old trope.
And then, in the next scene, James Spader is escaping from a hospital with the old, "rope and open window" trick, like, you know, a criminal mastermind.
The fact of the matter is that shows like Revenge, Scandal and Covert Affairs (and lets just throw in True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and Banshee, just to be safe) can't compete with the quality of of the cable greats. They'll never reach the somber, poetic brilliance of Mad Men or Homeland, or whatever. And they know this. So, instead, they just want to knock your socks off. They throw subtlety out the window and then throw basically everything else out with it. And sometimes, that's nice. Sometimes silly is good. And who better than to run this campy train the James Spader, who says every line like he's teaching English as a second language. Who stares lasciviously at furniture. This man was born for camp, made for silly. Graham Chapman's general would have a stroke just trying to keep up.