Published on June 4th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
The Blacklist’s Pandemic Episode Was Just Awkward And Uncanny
Kim offers a little rant on The Blacklist’s slap-dash attempt to make up for the shutdown of production. Is this an ugly precedent for TV?
The Blacklist is hardly what I would call must-see-TV, but I could understand if you told me that it’s a can’t-stop-watching type of show for you. You watch a couple episodes and then continue to let it play in the background while you’re making supper, folding clothes, or working on a project that requires some ambient noise and only a fraction of your attention. You could justify this alone with the argument that James Spader is an enigmatic and mesmerizing figure with a hypnotic voice, and he has found a role to multiply his cool just like Keifer Sutherland found Jack Bauer or how Jennifer Garner found Sydney Bristow. Popcorn TV driven by a perfectly cast lead character.
The premise of the show is deliciously alluring. Former government agent turned mastermind criminal, Raymond “Red” Reddington (Spader), walks into an FBI building to turn himself in after over twenty years on their most wanted list. Reddington offers to serve up a smorgasbord of seemingly impossible ideas for capturing criminals and lends his assistance in their pursuit. The catch? He will only work the cases with rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), and refuses to explain why.
There are plenty of frustrations in the 7 season/153 episode series to date, but on May 15th of this year, the show did something very unsettling with its season finale. The episode begins in typical fashion, but three minutes in we see one of the actors, clearly recording on their cell phone, address the audience to explain this was the shows point of shut-down due to the virus. They go on for a bit with their #We’reAllInThisTogether bullshit, and all the things celebrities have to say about the situation. Rather than close production down entirely, the Blacklist continued on, using the tools and available staff they had to make a patch-work episode that consisted of some already filmed scenes, animation, video graphics, voice over and editing tricks. The result infuriated me, and that’s what this article is really about.
The episode was tough to watch, so I can only imagine that it wasn’t a staff favourite to work on. The animation seems to be a collage of images we typically associate with graphic novels and video games from the mid-1990s (which looks pretty brutal in 2020). I’m cool with the graphic novel illustrations. We’ve seen this work like visual candy in things like the O-Ren Ishii origin portion of Kill Bill–the time Q.T. tricked you into watching and loving anime (subtitled anime, no less)–or the tale of the three brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Or the brilliant mixed-mediums of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse. Hell, if the Blacklist could have hired the animators from Archer, this would have looked pretty great. But my first three examples were wicked expensive, seriously time consuming, and I guess not everyone has access to Adam Reed’s team of artists.
So, the Blacklist pushed on with what looks like a rush-job of severely restricted resources and a shoe-string budget. And this is where an agitated fear crept into my thinking about the future of television to come: what if some executive idiot likes this format? Lest we forget George Lucas and his approach to the Phantom Menace (1999). George was going to make every character he could a “seamless animation” and made you sit through a lot of Jar-Jar Binks to sell the idea. It sucked. And so did the this effort from the Blacklist. The show just isn’t strong enough to pull off magic in a shut-down, stay-home world. Series lead Megan Boone and supporting actors Diego Klattenhoff and Amir Arison are passable on-screen, but don’t have the chops to sell a character with just their voice. Maybe I’m just not enough of a video game guy, but I don’t want to watch anymore television that makes me feel like I’m playing Silent Hill. Couldn’t I just go play Silent Hill instead?
The end of the episode plays an iPhone montage from almost three dozen lockdown employees of the show (mostly editors and writers, I assume). I can appreciate the frustration of their situation and the will to remain optimistic, but I’m also living it. I look to shows like this to distract me from everyday life; it’s why I turned off the news. I hope when the world ramps up to functional speed again, the Blacklist realizes that it’s the considerable heft of James Spader and his remarkably peculiar anecdotes that fuel this show. The most captivating aspects of the Blacklist have always been on-again, off-again but watching them stretch so far beyond what works reminds me of the time MacDonald’s tried to become a pizza place. That also sucked. Stick to the burgers and fries of storytelling, Blacklist. Watching James Spader be absurd is all I want. Especially during a global pandemic, I deserve a break today.