Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/NBC's The Blacklist, which stars James Spader as criminal mastermind Red Reddington, continues to be one of the hottest new shows on network TV, blowing away Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ABC's Castle and CBS' (NYSE:CBS) Intelligence in the Monday 10 p.m. time slot on March 17.
After a two-week absence, The Blacklist attracted 11.12 million viewers with its 16th episode, scoring a 2.8 rating among 18 to 49 year olds. It was also the series' second best 18 to 49 rating since Dec. 2.
By comparison, ABC's Castle attracted 9.85 million viewers, with an 18-49 rating of 1.8, and CBS' Intelligence was watched by 5.27 million viewers for an 18-49 rating of 1.1. The Blacklist is a standout performer for NBC, effortlessly topping NBC's network average 18-49 rating (excluding sports programming) of 2.0 and 5.75 million viewers during the same period last year.
In a previous article, I discussed three big problems with the show despite its soaring ratings. James Spader's acting was top-notch, but the supporting cast was terribly wooden, and the show's dull "monster of the week" affairs seemed to have been recycled from CSI and NCIS.
Yet since its return after the Winter Olympics, the show seems to be on much firmer ground, although some of the aforementioned flaws remain. Let's talk about three things that The Blacklist finally did right, and how those changes could help it maintain momentum into its second season and beyond.
1. Adopting a serialized format
One of the major changes to the show since its return has been the improved progression of its serialized storyline while tackling the procedural cases from Reddington's blacklist of criminals.
Episode 16, "Mako Tanida," did a solid job of advancing Tom Keen's story while building up the relationship between Agent Donald Ressler and Reddington -- a key plot point that was left dangling after the show's tour de force mid-season finale last December. More importantly, it finally gave viewers a reason to tune into the show next week by laying the foundations for a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like confrontation between Elizabeth Keen and her husband.
2. Not taking itself too seriously
Many of the weaker episodes of The Blacklist took themselves too seriously, even when the situations were absurd. Victims being dissolved in bathtubs, forensic scientists using synthetic DNA to forge crime scenes, and a doctor launching terrorist attacks to formulate a vaccine were all written in such muted, procedural fashion that they felt like episodes of any generic crime drama.
In the 15th and 16th episodes, however, the writers made things a bit more interesting by introducing a vigilante judge who takes the law into her own hands with a homemade electric chair and a Japanese criminal running amok with a samurai sword.
The 16th episode was a bloodbath, with FBI agents committing seppuku by disemboweling themselves with daggers, and Reddington putting a decapitated head in an ornamental box as a gift for Agent Ressler. It was ridiculous and likely reminded audiences of goofy 1980s films like American Ninja, but it was also plenty of fun to watch.
3. A renewed focus on the key characters
The writers seem to have finally realized that many of the supporting actors in the FBI crew don't deserve much screen time, and have decided to focus on strengthening the ties between the lead characters -- Reddington, Agent Keen, Agent Ressler, and Tom Keen -- instead.
Although Diego Klattenhoff (Ressler), Megan Boone (Keen), and Ryan Eggold (Tom Keen) still don't measure up to Spader's screen-stealing performance as Reddington, the writers are now giving them more screentime and building up their storylines.
The show notably swapped out staff writers Brandon Sonnier and Brandon Margolis, who co-wrote most of the first half of the season, with new writers for its post-Olympic episodes. "The Judge" was written by Jonathan Shapiro and Lukas Reiter, while "Mako Tanida" was written by John Eisendrath, Patrick Massett, and John Zinman.
Shapiro was notably a recurring writer for Boston Legal, which also starred Spader, and Eisendrath was a writer for ABC's espionage hit Alias -- which could explain the show's noticeable shift in tone and quality over the past two episodes.
What does The Blacklist mean for NBC and Comcast?
During the September 2012 to May 2013 season, CBS completely crushed Fox (NASDAQ: FOX), NBC, and ABC. NBC ranked third among adults 18 to 49, and a dismal fourth in total viewers. Jumping forward to this season, NBC is now tied with CBS for first place among 18 to 49 year olds, thanks to well-received shows like The Voice, The Blacklist, and Grimm.
Comcast reported that although NBC's fiscal 2013 revenue declined 13.2% year-over-year to $7.12 billion, revenue for the fourth quarter, which ended on Dec. 31, climbed 11.5% year-over-year to $2.23 billion. That rebound coincides with recent ratings results that confirm that the network is now dominating ABC and Fox in network programming.
NBC naturally renewed The Blacklist for a full 22-episode second season last December. Although the show is still a bit rough around the edges, it could have a bright future ahead if it maintains the momentum it has built over the previous two episodes.