Nothing might sum up the crazy times we’re living in like the words “James Spader: Action Hero.” But there you go. As The Blacklist takes off into its excellent third season, it remains one of a kind: the model for a well-built network cloak-and-dagger caper, so consistently clever it makes the whole genre look a breeze — except nobody else gets it right. So much of the show’s success comes down to Spader as Raymond “Red” Reddington, the debonair concierge of crime and a rogue FBI agent who comes in from the cold to battle a sinister global conspiracy he calls the Cabal. Spader’s best trick has always been his slow-burn poker face, with its 50 shades of mellow. But the gentleman spy Red is the perfect role for him: his intense eyes shielded by those manhole-cover lids, his control-freak deadpan, his patrician-stoner smirk. Pretty vacant, as the old song goes.
As Red, Spader uses the FBI as his personal cleaning service, crossing out a different bad guy’s name each week while mentoring rookie agent Liz (Megan Boone), who (we think) must be his daughter. But this season they go on the lam after she guns down an attorney general in cold blood — along with revelations that her mother was a legendary KGB spy back in the day. After Liz and Red turn into the two most wanted fugitives in America, she flees to the Russian embassy and announces she’s a deep-cover spy for the Mother Country. Is she lying? We can’t be sure. Of course, Red manages to seem outrageously pleased with himself even when he’s running for his life — faced with holing up in a hideout for a week, he muses, “I’ll finally get a chance to catch up on some back issues of Bassmaster.” And he keeps dropping his maddening Zen proverbs about the spy’s life. The secret to being a fugitive? “You need to find the peace beneath the winds.”
It’s a bold move for The Blacklist: turning into The Fugitive and hitting the road after two seasons of eliminating the bad guy of the week, a rhythm that Spader and crew have made reliably entertaining. A massive hit for the first season and a half, the series took a serious beating in the ratings last February for one extremely obvious reason: NBC moved it to Thursday nights, opposite ABC’s weekly 90-minute Shonda Rhimes block. Not even Red is bad-ass enough to step to Shondalandia. So this on-the-road go-round is a radical gambit when one is needed.
Not to mention that our current season of discontent has belched up a few blatant Blacklist knock-offs — there’s Blindspot, where a woman wakes up naked in a duffel bag in the middle of Times Square, covered with tattooed runes head to toe, and forced to solve the mystery by decoding a different piece of ink every week. There’s also The Player, a much more enjoyable caper with Wesley Snipes in the dashing-bad-guy Spader role, as a Vegas operator in the secret world of mega-stakes crime gambling.
But the copy cats just show why it’s so hard to duplicate the ease and panache of The Blacklist; it depends on Spader’s serene arrogance to carry it off week by week. That quality has served him well his whole career, whether he’s been playing preppie scum (Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero), kinksters (Secretary, Crash) or cartoon villains (Age of Ultron, 2 Days in the Valley). But he’s never had an asshole to play quite like Red.