If “Hannibal” was a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Blacklist” plays like a de facto sequel — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Creating a toothy vehicle for James Spader, few series can boast such a compelling central figure, even if his cryptic comments and opaque motives risk giving way to a rather familiar procedural. Still, unlike a lot of this fall’s new hours, “The Blacklist” at least warrants a return visit — and perhaps more if Spader’s serpent-like villain can become more than just Hannibal Lite.
To be fair, in terms of movie touchstones, “Blacklist” is an equal-opportunity borrower. The opening, for example, is straight out of “Seven,” with Spader’s one-time government agent turned master criminal, Raymond “Red” Reddington, walking into FBI headquarters, dropping to his knees as officers surround him and giving himself up to authorities.
“For the moment, our interests are aligned,” he tells the skeptical feds, headed by Harry Lennix, before insisting that an obscure young female agent serve as his conduit and chief contact, for reasons he won’t divulge.
No, it’s not Clarice Starling, but newbie Agent Liz Keen (Megan Boone), who is as mystified by the request as her bosses. Yet she dutifully goes to interview Reddington in a cell seemingly designed to contain Magneto, where the suspect snarls vague clues during tight closeups, setting the FBI after an international “24”-like baddie who Reddington wants to see behind bars.
“I’m gonna make you famous, Lizzie,” he tells her, this target being just first of a catalog of criminals he’d like to see caught.
Spader has always been a particularly interesting actor, and he’s well suited to this sort of twisted figure, where so much is going on behind those eyes. That said, he’s all that lifts “The Blacklist” above the mundane, and at least initially, the format limits his screen time, in the same way James Purefoy was shackled (literally, come to think of it) for much of “The Following’s” first season.
NBC obviously has a hell of a lot riding on this Sony-produced hour, which the network is giving the plum timeslot coming out of “The Voice,” the one truly formidable lead-in in its arsenal. Yet like a lot of procedurals with a built-in backstory — and the list aspect provides the spine for that — the question remains how well the producers can dole out elements to raise the stakes beyond just whether the next name winds up dead or in cuffs.
Minus that concern, “The Blacklist” probably ranks as one of the fall’s more promising new network hours. But that’s the result of grading on a curve — and matching the show up against a pretty gray list.