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‘The Blacklist’ Team on the Road to 100 Episodes: ‘There Is a Lot of Wish Fulfillment Going On’

It was a moment five seasons, four years and countless twists, turns and cases of the week in the making when the cast and crew of “The Blacklist” gathered on-set in New York for their 100th episode celebration late last year.

The series started with James Spader’s Raymond “Red” Reddington surrendering himself to the FBI with the claim that he wanted to help track down and capture some of the very criminals with whom he spent the last two decades of his life working. But the show delivered so much in the first 99 episodes that it’s hard for the actors to single out the milestone without acknowledging all that came before.

“This show, I think, has longevity because it packs in a lot of entertainment,” says Megan Boone, who plays FBI Agent Elizabeth “Liz” Keen.

“For me, today is episode 11 of the fifth season,” said Spader on-set. “So it marks the halfway point and of course it’s episode 100. That feels like a lot of television.”

And it’s television that not only helped NBC rebuild its reputation and lineup, but also television that has captivated audiences around the world for the past four years.

The first “Blacklist” episode aired on Sept. 23, 2013. Viewers were immediately taken with Red and Liz’s partnership.

Unlike the majority of pilots, expectations for “The Blacklist” were anything but modest. NBC believed so strongly in the Sony-produced series that execs gave it the plum timeslot coming out of “The Voice.”
The network’s faith in the show paid off.

In its first two weeks “The Blacklist” averaged a live+same day rating of 3.6, 10-share in adults 18-49 and 12 million viewers. With “The Voice” as its lead-in, the show quickly established itself as the top freshman drama in both demo and total viewers, and would become the No. 1 new scripted series launched by NBC during the 2013-14 season.

Less than a month after its premiere, NBC gave the series a full-season commitment, ordering an additional nine episodes to round out its first-season order to 22.

To date, the show has been sold in more than 175 territories across the world including Australia, Brazil and the United Kingdom, where the fourth season ranked among the top 15 U.S. dramas on U.K. digital channels.

“‘The Blacklist’ has been really important to the network as well as to me personally,” says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “When Bob [Greenblatt] and I first came to NBC, we were in last place, and it was ‘The Blacklist’ that was our first hit drama. It single-handedly sent a message to the community that NBC was turning the ship around, and now, five years later, to reach the 100th episode going into a year when we’re the number one network is incredibly rewarding.”

“When Bob [Greenblatt] and I first came to NBC, we were in last place, and it was ‘The Blacklist’ that was our first hit drama.”
Jennifer Salke

For series creator and executive producer Jon Bokenkamp, the show’s success came as a complete shock.

“I’d never done TV before,” he says. “I knew we had something that we liked, but we had no idea it would catch such a wave.”

The drama was so hot that Netflix acquired the rights to the series in 2014 for a reported $2 million per episode.

NBC shifted the series’ schedule to Thursdays a third of the way into its sophomore season. Seeking to hook viewers and lead them directly into the show’s new timeslot, NBC aired the first of a two-part “Blacklist” just after the Super Bowl in 2015. The post-game episode drew in 26.5 million live+same day viewers.

For the 2016-17 television season, “The Blacklist” ranked as NBC’s third most watched scripted series behind “This Is Us” and “Chicago Fire,” averaging 9.3 million viewers in live+seven day Nielsens during season four.

Bokenkamp partially credits the show’s success and longevity to being a serialized procedural.

“Having the Red/Liz storyline parallel to the blacklister crime of the week is compelling,” he says. “We played with that formula in the beginning, but we always knew that it would be something that would distinguish the series.

According to executive producer and showrunner John Eisendrath, casting has also been key to the series’ success.

Boone puts a lot of care into her performance as Liz. “It’s for the audiences who get a kind of escapist pleasure out of the show,” she says. “I’m disappointed when I am not able to show up with the same investment that I think is a duty of mine. It’s more for the viewers than it is for myself.”

And it may be hard to imagine anyone other than Spader as Red, but back in 2012 when the show was being cast, Eisendrath says the role was offered to Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Gere, Bryan Cranston and Pierce Brosnan.

“I’m not sure if our offers even got to those actors or if their agents just said, ‘Forget it,’” he says.

Spader said yes to the part just three days before the pilot was scheduled to begin filming. While Bokenkamp and Eisendrath had lengthy phone calls with him prior to the pilot, the duo didn’t meet Spader in person until the first day of production. Spader was in a dressing room getting his head shaved.

“Once James stepped into the character during the pilot, adjustments were made to fit a voice that he had in mind,” Bokenkamp says.

Diego Klattenhoff and Mozhan Marnò are part of “The Blacklist” cast that has hooked audiences over the years.

Red’s voice is another reason the show has experienced longevity, according to executive producer, John Fox.

“There is a lot of wish fulfillment going on,” Fox says. “Red can do and say things that most people wouldn’t do or say. He crosses a lot of lines, and I think that’s a fun ride to watch.”

The show has never shied away from tumultuous and game changing reveals, as well as deaths. The 100th episode was filmed back in November, just two days before the fifth season’s winter finale aired, in which it was revealed that core character Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) had been killed off.

“It’s been a really cool journey figuring out who the guy behind the mask is,” Eggold says of Tom. “Learning who he was and what he really wanted has been really cool.”

Shocking audiences by killing off an original character such as Tom or solving secrets such as Liz learning at the end of season four that Red is her father doesn’t worry Eisendrath.

“It’s part of the way the house is built,” he says. “Anyone can go at any time. I mean, we blew up Alan Alda — a TV legend!”

Jeffrey Frost, president of Sony Pictures Television Studios, feels that achieving 100 episodes in this day and age is “nothing short of remarkable.”

“For a series to experience such longevity, especially a drama series, speaks to the brilliant storytelling and spectacular performances of everyone involved. From Sony’s perspective, it reflects the importance of independent studios to distribution platforms in a vertically integrated environment,” Frost says.

As the show continues to unfold, the team behind the hit series agrees that there is plenty more story to mine and secrets (including a suitcase full of mysterious bones) to explore.

“What I’m really amazed at is that after 100 episodes we have so much more story to tell,” Spader says. “We’ve still got a ways to go until the endgame.”

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