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The Blacklist: TV Review

The Blacklist TV Still - H 2013
NBC

The Bottom Line

Lead actor James Spader and the procedural genre makes this NBC series a winning combo.

Airdate

Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC, beginning Sept. 23

The James Spader-starring drama premieres Sept. 23 at 10 p.m. on NBC.

NBC has two very good things going for its new buzz-heavy drama, The Blacklist (Monday, Sept. 23, 10 p.m.). First, it's got James Spader at the center of it, giving a dazzling performance that should make viewers want to come back every week for more. Secondly, it's a procedural – which viewers really love, but there's an over-arching element to the premise as well that makes it intriguing without making it overly complicated.

In short, a winning combo.

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Spader plays ex-government agent Raymond "Red" Reddington, who disappeared off the map years earlier and has been peddling classified information to international terrorists. One day he appears out of the blue and turns himself in to FBI headquarters (no doubt you've seen the promo if you have a television).

FBI counter-terrorism head Harry Cooper (Harry Lennix), who has chased Red for years without any luck – Red clearly had issues with him – is dubious about this sudden change. And for good reason. Red's first order of business is to cut off Cooper and demand that he only talk to FBI agent Elizabeth Keene (Megan Boone).

Cooper turns to his right-hand man, FBI agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) and asks who the hell Elizabeth Keene is.

Turns out, she's just graduated to agent status and this is her first day on the job. Red, whose intelligence-gathering skills makes a mockery of what Cooper and his agents have been able to do, knows a lot about Keene even though Keene has no evident connection to him.

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Yes, this part feels a bit too much like Silence of the Lambs, especially since the FBI has Red holed up in a "black site" off the map and under heavy scrutiny, even though he's as Zen as can be and shows no signs of being a physical threat. Mentally, however, he's clearly dangerous.

He ends up telling the FBI about a terrorist that the agency thought had died six years ago. Red says, nope, he just got off a plane at Dulles -- which is true -- and Red knows this because he arranged it.

This is the part about The Blacklist that is most intriguing. As Spader devours the script and steals every scene, basking in the power he has – more than the FBI thinks he has – the audience isn't sure what his motives are. The connection to Keene doesn't seem too difficult to figure out, though guesses in that direction may end up bearing no fruit. But the pilot suggests that Red isn't going to be some white hat masquerading as a criminal. He certainly seems to have dealt with a number of unsavory types, and the pilot makes it clear that he's well-connected to the underbelly of international power brokers and terrorists. So, what's his game?

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Part if it rests in the name of the series: Red is checking off names on his "blacklist," which contains people who would shame the FBI's current Ten Most Wanted list (which Red has been on for years). The ones on the blacklist, he explains, aren't just the big fish for the FBI – they are the whales. And the agency will never get them without cooperating with Red.

It's certainly an intriguing pilot – you can't take your eyes off of Spader, and the writers have thrown in a couple of other interesting twists. It's likely that The Blacklist will at least approach the bad-guy-a-week format of a closed-ended procedural that doesn't tax viewers' brains too much. But in the process, the pilot suggests there are other things to keep you interested along the way. That is, beyond just sitting there eating popcorn and basking in the delicious way that Spader takes on this role.

He's enough to warrant a real long look at The Blacklist, but there seems to be more depth there for the long haul as well.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com