"The Blacklist" Enters Make or Break

If NBC's fledgling drama is going to endure, it enters key window with its own to-do list

As NBC and other networks have discovered, declaring something a hit prematurely in this day and age can fall squarely in counting-chickens-before-they’re-hatched territory. So after a promising start in the fall behind “The Voice,” “The Blacklist” returns for a January run without that generous lead-in, testing whether this James Spader vehicle is the real deal — or at the very least has established enough of a bond to stand alone on its TV-toddler legs.

It doesn’t help, strictly on an anecdotal basis, how many people appear to echo my sentiments — saying things like, “I started watching ‘The Blacklist,’ and a I kind of liked it, but….”

In this case, that’s a rather big “but” — referring, essentially, to everything in the show that isn’t Spader. Moreover, some people appear to be getting somewhat tired (again, a feeling harbored here) of the prolonged tease regarding Spader’s character, Red Reddington, and the underlying reason for his interest in the young FBI agent (Megan Boone) who he has pulled into his mysterious orbit.

On the plus side, recognizing what a potential asset the show could be, Sony Pictures Television has invested in the series, recruiting fine actors like Jane Alexander and Alan Alda for ongoing roles, and introducing a shadowy conspiracy. That said, it’s hard to escape a tedious sense of repetition that has crept into the formula already,

On Monday, “Blacklist” didn’t have “The Voice” as its opening act, instead following something called “American Ninja Warrior: USA Vs. Japan.” Moreover, it went up against the second episode of “Intelligence,” a new CBS drama that got off to a promising start last week with the help of a preview behind “NCIS.”

NBC no doubt breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday, as “Blacklist” won its timeslot in preliminary Nielsen results, with 9.1 million viewers and a 2.5 rating among adults 18-49 — a 17% drop from its last flight of originals, which is OK, provided that doesn’t turn into a trend line. (“Intelligence” notched a weak 6.1 million and 1.1, respectively, suggesting most of those who sampled the show didn’t feel all that compelled to follow it.)

Still, the bottom line is “The Blacklist” often feels at war with itself — like two shows wrapped into one. Unfortunately, while the one involving Spader is darkly comic and entertaining (if occasionally a tad grisly), the other is wholly ordinary. That schism felt even more pronounced in this latest hour, with Reddington running around solo exacting vengeance, while the FBI chased a poor man’s Norman Bates.

Like many shows, “The Blacklist” came with its own version of a TV joke built into the premise: All those names on the list theoretically provide an excuse to run until all the bad guys have been hunted down, which in success could take a good long time. (Fox’s “Alcatraz” used a similar device but didn’t get to fulfill its charter.)

NBC could certainly use a legitimate dramatic hit — indeed, all the networks are starved for them at 10 p.m. — but just wishing and willing it won’t necessarily make it so. And the clock is ticking, inasmuch as the obvious goal would be to move the show and let “The Voice” help launch another new hour.

Those with a stake in “The Blacklist” have taken modest steps to tinker with the program, clearly without wanting to undermine what’s currently working. But they’re playing with fire if they feel overly secure about the series remaining on the Nielsen A-list strictly because of its star. So if they really want this show to be a smash — as opposed to, say, a “Smash” — their to-do list should be almost as long as Reddington’s.

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