Not to place undue pressure on “The Blacklist” season finale, but with NBC having made the show the linchpin of its 2014-15 hopes and dreams, it would seemingly have behooved the drama — still a toddler by TV standards — to go out on a strong note. Yet what NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt described as a “game-changer” during Monday’s upfront presentation really represented little more than a flick of the “Reset” button, setting up a new villain for season two and continuing to play cryptic (and increasingly, tiresome) games with the question of why James Spader’s suave killer, Raymond “Red” Reddington, is so preoccupied with the young FBI agent he took under his wing.
Frankly, even at this late date, it’s hard to escape a sense that the series remains James Spader and the Seven Dwarfs — essentially two shows wrapped in one, with Spader’s ruthless anti-hero feeling like a pay-cable protagonist, wedded to a more mundane broadcast procedural that involves hunting down the nefarious personalities who populate his list.
The finale, meanwhile (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), brought the carnage home to the task force of which Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) is a part, resulting in the death of one member and serious injury of another. Elizabeth also put a couple of bullets into the belly of the spy who loved her, her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), which certainly had to be cathartic for her, as well as everyone who can feel better, relatively speaking, about their own failed first marriages.
The series has also pushed the envelope in its violence quotient, with a penchant for torture that would do Jack Bauer proud. Here, that included Reddington shooting one guy in both hands and tossing a knife in another’s thigh. (No dogs, mercifully, were harmed in either exchange.)
All told, NBC has put a lot of eggs in the basket of a show that relies so heavily on one character, and has yet to develop a supporting cast — or story lines — to match. In hindsight, commercially speaking, the key stretch for the series came during January, when NBC tested its strength without “The Voice” as its lead-in and ratings held up reasonably well. A strong push through the spring behind the music competition cemented the fact that the series would be asked to go out and anchor a night in its sophomore year.
At this point, the business story surrounding “The Blacklist” — and how much NBC has riding on it — is more interesting than the program itself. That includes the decision to move the show at midseason using the Super Bowl to launch it, and making the series the de facto blueprint for the network’s drama development. Moreover, NBC’s scheduling plans ensure the network will throw an ungodly amount of resources at its return, so don’t expect to watch “Sunday Night Football” in the fall without seeing multiple “Blacklist” plugs dancing across the screen.
Ultimately, “The Blacklist” entails the smallest of wrinkles on the CBS crime formula, a series that involves hunting down different criminals every week, with a modest mythology to string along the audience with the deferred promise of something bigger.
So far, in crass bottom-line terms, so good. But when it comes to the delicate game of playing keep-away with the show’s back story, like some of those knife and bullet wounds, there isn’t a big margin for error.