Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/NBC's The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as criminal mastermind Raymond "Red" Reddington, set a DVR playback record for its second new episode of the year last week.
On Jan. 20, The Blacklist's 8.83 million live viewers were boosted to 14.26 million viewers, after 5.43 million "Live+3" (three days of DVR playback) viewers were added to the final tally. The lift from DVR numbers pushes The Blacklist's ratings up from a 2.3 to 3.9 among adults ages 18 to 49.
That surge also barely topped the previous DVR playback record, also held by The Blacklist, of 5.426 million additional viewers -- making the show one of the best performing ones of the fall season. It also demonstrates that the show can survive without The Voice leading in on Monday nights, which previously caused some concerns earlier this month when ratings slightly dipped.
Despite The Blacklist's strong ratings, I have serious doubts that the show can successfully retain its momentum in the long run. Here are three major problems that The Blacklist needs to resolve at the risk of losing viewers in the future.
1. There's only one skilled actor on the entire show.
First and foremost, the biggest problem with The Blacklist is that it has one great actor -- James Spader -- in a forest of hopelessly wooden ones.
Reddington gets great lines, which Spader devours with aplomb, and every scene he is in oozes with the delicious darkness that the show is known for.
Unfortunately, whenever Spader exits the scene, the show slows to a crawl. There's no directorial pressure to push the other characters -- even main ones like Megan Boone's Agent Elizabeth Keen -- to match Spader's screen presence.
Perhaps Spader can carry the show on his own, but I predict that audiences will eventually tire of watching the flat, uninspired performances from Agent Keen, her passive-aggressive husband, and the rest of the supporting characters, which could very well be part of the cast of any other generic police/federal agency procedural show.
2. It's procedural, formulaic, and messy -- all at the same time.
When Reddington is taken out of the equation, The Blacklist is simple a generic procedural show.
Each career criminal on the blacklist has a neat supervillain name like the Freelancer or the Alchemist, but let's be honest -- these are the exact same generic villains that populate other procedural detective shows like CBS' (NYSE:CBS) CSI or NCIS.
The central question -- whether or not Red is Agent Keen's father -- is an intriguing question, but the other questions posed by the writers are random and messy. An early story arc about Keen's husband being a spy strangely faded away via deus ex machina, and other generic subplots, such as an agency mole, have taken absurd turns that indicate that the writers are struggling to find the right direction.
In its current form, The Blacklist is a Frankenstein-like mishmash of Alias, 24, CSI, the Hannibal films, and a dash of Sherlock. Unfortunately, it fails to improve upon any of the above. The show would improve substantially if the writers simply dropped the FBI portion completely and focused on Red's criminal misadventures instead.
3. The show is having an identity crisis.
The Blacklist works the best when it's raw, gritty, dark, and grounded in reality. The two-part midseason finale, in which Red was cornered in his bulletproof glass box by an old adversary, was a tense tour de force showing how great the show could be.
When the show returned in January, however, the focus shifted back to cheesy villains in increasingly ludicrous situations. Episode 12, "The Alchemist," was particularly absurd -- the titular villain was a reverse forensic scientist who could alter any body to resemble anyone else.
It was as if the writers suddenly decided to mimic the silly pseudoscience employed by Disney (NYSE: DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) Almost Human in a desperate bid to boost ratings with the sci-fi crowd. The show's most recent episode, "The Cyprus Agency," confirmed that suspicion by slavishly copying a concept that was executed far better in Fox's Fringe (Season 4's "A Better Man").
What does all of this mean for NBC?
Meanwhile, NBC has a poor track record of ruining perfectly good show concepts.
The musical Smash, for example, was once lauded as the "show that would save NBC," but it ended up as a disaster after the network replaced showrunner Theresa Rebeck with Gossip Girl showrunner Joshua Safran. The comedy Up All Night was reworked so many times throughout the first season that Christina Applegate, who played the central character, quit the show.
Due to those well-documented troubles (and many more), NBC finished 2013 in third place in both the 18-49 and 18-34 age groups, trailing CBS and Fox in both categories, but finishing slightly ahead of ABC.
The rest of NBC's fall lineup, The Blacklist excluded, hasn't been great either -- the network already cancelled ratings laggards Ironside and Welcome to the Family last October, and other shows like Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show are hanging on by a thread.
Looking forward, however, things look considerably brighter -- the Winter Olympics (Feb. 7 to 23) and J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón's supernatural drama Believe, which premieres on March 10, could substantially boost network viewership.
Moreover, NBC, which comprises the bulk of Comcast's broadcasting segment, is still performing well financially. Last quarter, broadcasting revenue (which accounts for 13% of Comcast's top line), rose 11.5% year-over-year.
The bottom line
In conclusion, The Blacklist isn't a terrible show, but it's one that squanders its promising premise on dull, by-the-numbers procedural investigations. The status quo probably won't change anytime soon, considering the show's record-breaking DVR numbers, but I strongly believe that the show's three aforementioned flaws could eventually wear out audiences.
What do you think, dear readers? Am I being too hard on The Blacklist? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.