Performers can carry weak-to-mediocre premises pretty far. In fact, that's essentially the meta-premise of The Blacklist: Everyone is here to watch James Spader/Red do his thing.
After a satisfying and propulsive two-night premiere that saw Liz (Megan Boone) conspire to put her faux father in prison, the sixth season's third episode pumped the brakes. This wasn't a surprising or unwelcome development; the longer the show explores Red's incarceration, the better. However, while the task force continued its work in the shadows -- hunting a rogue, "bio-hacker" pharmacist -- the A-plot of the episode saw Red pull the most Red move possible: firing his public defender and electing to represent himself in court.
In almost all cases across scripted entertainment, this decision is silly and dramatically inert. Even Red's performance in front of the court here isn't the exception that proves the rule, but it did allow Spader the opportunity to harken back to his days on The Practice and Boston Legal for which he won three Emmys for his performance as Alan Shore. That's right, three.
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Though the performance was not nearly as heightened as his work as Shore, Spader made an otherwise middling episode watchable and tension filled. Red, of course, immediately owned the courtroom, persuading the judge to listen to his claims about the still-secret task force and using Harold's (Harry Lennix) investment in the task force's success to bring the truth to the surface.James Spader, The Blacklist" data-image-credit="Virginia Sherwood/NBC" data-image-alt-text="James Spader, The Blacklist" data-image-credit-url="" data-image-target-url="" data-image-title="James Spader, The Blacklist" data-image-filename="190111-the-blacklist.jpg" data-image-date-created="2019/01/11" data-image-crop="" data-image-crop-gravity="" data-image-aspect-ratio="" data-image-height="1381" data-image-width="2070" data-image-do-not-crop="" data-image-do-not-resize="" data-image-watermark="" data-lightbox="">
From there, Red faced off with the exasperated prosecutor (the guesting and always good Ken Leung) in a second, private hearing about the validity of the task force. And as usual, Red got the upper hand on everyone. When the prosecutor pushed Red and Harold to answer questions about the purpose of the task force and Red's adherence to the immunity agreement, Red countered with a charged monologue about our post-truth fake news society -- and effectively sold the judge in the process.
Other characters were shocked and annoyed at Red's bald-faced distortion of facts, and the judge begrudgingly went along with some of it, and Harold risked his career by lying about Red's misdeeds. That's all inherently wild, but Spader made it as believable as could be. He so perfectly embodies Red in moments where the character has to sell total BS. Everyone knows it's a con! There aren't too many performers who could make that work so effectively.
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On a procedural level, this episode served as a kind of bridge to what will likely be more compelling stories. While Red managed to escape the second hearing without any proof that he's broken the agreement, he's still off to prison while he awaits trial. Placing that character in an ugly prison holds a lot of potential for comedy and drama, and for Spader to chew through prison bar scenery like it's nothing.
But with Spader at the helm, even the weakest premises can become effective -- or at least watchable -- hours of TV.
The Blacklist airs Fridays at 9/8c on NBC.
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