As I sit here snowed in and killing time with the DVR, allow me a moment of genuine respect for The Blacklist–and to clarify this blog’s potentially inflammatory headline. You’re not stupid if you watch this NBC thriller. It’s an action thriller in which the larger-than-life portions are actually generated by the drama, particularly the scenery chewing performance of one James Spader.
But it’s also not a particularly smart show: the direction is workmanlike, without any of the flair or style of the cancelled Hannibal, and there’s more exposition than banter, which is generally a bad sign for a show. Its leads are ill-defined beyond the fact that one of them, the amoral anti-hero has just enough morals to make him a palatable protagonist: he’s doing things outside the system only because it’s corrupt–the shadowy Cabal controls the government. The other two, Liz and Tom, are breaking laws left and right, but it’s out of love, largely; beyond that, they have no real personality, just as Ressler and Cooper–the FBI agents now pursuing or aiding Liz, a former agent (see also: Quantico)–are driven by the case-of-the-week, as malleable as necessary to keep the plot moving.
None of this is the point, though. You’re not meant to think about the plausibility of The Blacklist, you’re supposed to watch people kick-ass and triumph, at any cost, over the truly evil and despicable people out there. And that’s where The Blacklist gets you, because it’s constantly questioning what’s truly despicable. Is an abortionist really all that horrific once you’ve seen women imprisoned, strapped to tables, forced to churn out children in some sort of slave-labor baby mill? The Djinn helps people to live out their revenge fantasies, but can you blame him for seeking justice against his father–the sort of man who, unwilling to accept that his son was gay, chopped off his penis and turned him into a woman? No, people who have problems with how other people self-identify and live their lives are, frankly, stupid, and this show, which is secretly slipping in stuff like this among all the other blatantly unsubtle explosions and gunfire, is designed for them. It’s almost as if it’s being stupid on purpose, flying low so as to reach that common denominator that usually just shuts out anything at odds with their religion or gut. Given all the anti-elitist talk, perhaps it takes a crude medium to reach certain people.
Republicans are right to fear the media and to fret about how quickly we’ve made social progress toward equal rights and universal values over the last decade or so. They’re just wrong about where that messaging is coming from: the true heroes are stupid shows like The Blacklist.