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‘The Blacklist’ Becomes ‘The Fugitive’ In Third-Season Opener (SPOILERS)

The Blacklist” ended its second season on a truly unexpected note, one that altered the direction of the series, leaving its two central characters on the run together like a May-December version of Bonnie & Clyde, or maybe Boris & Natasha. In practice, however, their fugitive status made for a rather ho-hum season premiere, although the hour ended – as the series often does – on one of those tantalizing notes that whets the appetite for the next week.

Frankly, this NBC drama has often toyed with viewers the way Lucy keeps pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. So it was surprising to see FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) kill the corrupt Attorney General last season, which forced her to flee with Red Reddington (James Spader), the international man of mystery who provided authorities with the black list, while taking an inordinate interest in Liz’s career.

Putting Liz on the run – and having partner Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) charged with tracking her down – theoretically sets up a nifty game of cat and mouse. Beyond that, there’s the little matter of the ruthless conspiracy whose operatives are bold enough to tell the powerful head of a shadowy government agency (played by David Strathairn, terrific as always) that “every breath you draw is at our discretion.”

As played in the premiere, though (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), the hairpin escapes and dealings with shady characters felt like killing time until that final, clever moment when Liz took refuge at the Russian embassy, capitalizing upon a birth mother she didn’t even know about until Red came into her life. (Red’s dumbstruck reaction upon seeing Liz with blonde hair, apparently reminded of her mother, was another one of those nicely played if rather creepy moments.)

To its credit, the series, under showrunner Jon Bokenkamp, has deftly kept incorporating such twists, enabling it to keep Reddington’s motives shrouded. Still, the program largely remains somewhat schizophrenic, alternating between the familiar trappings of a procedural and something more lively, funny and unpredictable whenever Spader occupies center stage. It’s also hard not to notice that the focus on Liz’s mother, who turns out to have been a Russian spy, bears at least a passing resemblance to the later seasons of “Alias,” where the espionage gene passed from mom to daughter.

In more pragmatic terms, “The Blacklist” has clearly lost some ratings steam since being relocated to Thursday night, not only sacrificing its lead-in from “The Voice” but airing opposite ABC’s popular Shonda Rhimes dramas and Thursday-night football. Once again bookended by new hours, NBC’s scheduling remains a formidable test of the show’s appeal, and while there’s still plenty of delayed viewing, what’s been lost isn’t entirely offset by DVR time-shifting.

Certainly, the Liz-on-the-run thread has admirably toyed with the program’s dynamic, at a point where the writers appeared to be exhausting options, or at least becoming a bit repetitive in tracking down bad guys with colorful nicknames like (in this latest case) “The Troll Farmer.” The question now is how long this plot can be sustained before bringing its spy in from the cold, lest the entire enterprise begin to lose some of its heat.

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