Two of the better network dramas go head to head starting Monday: "The Blacklist" (9 p.m. CT Sept. 23, NBC; 3 stars out of 4) and "Hostages" (9 p.m. CT Sept. 23, CBS; 3 stars out of 4).
I give "The Blacklist" the edge, thanks to the dazzling performance of James Spader as Raymond "Red" Reddington, an ex-government agent who disappeared years ago and has been selling classified information to the highest bidder ever since.
Red walks into FBI headquarters and gives himself up, offering to help the agency catch an international terrorist long believed dead. Although skeptical, Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) play along as Red tells them he will only deal with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie agent who hasn't even begun her new job as a profiler.
"I'm going to make you famous, Lizzie," Red tells her. Eventually he promises to help the FBI catch the criminals he has catalogued in his personal "blacklist."
If their budding relationship sounds similar to that of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," wait until you see the set-up of their initial meeting. But don't be disturbed that "The Blacklist" borrows liberally from that film, or from "Seven" or other thrillers. Creator Jon Bokencamp and pilot director Joe Carnahan manage to breathe new life into the familiar.
There's no doubt that "The Blacklist" will present a terrorist case of the week. But the marvelous action sequences and intriguing plot twists should lift it above any standard procedural. The unanswered questions pile up in the pilot: Why is Red fixated on Elizabeth? What is his past relationship with Cooper (because clearly they know each other)? Is he truly helping them, or duping them somehow?
If none of that interests you, Spader's magnetic performance alone is enough to warrant at least a couple looks.
The limited series "Hostages" also benefits from a strong lead performance. Toni Collette plays Dr. Ellen Sanders, a surgeon whose family is taken hostage by FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott). The rogue agent orders Ellen to kill the president (James Naughton) during a rudimentary surgery or he and his cronies will kill her family.
"Don't think of it as killing the president," Carlisle says. "Think of it as saving your family."
Like Spader, Collette is fascinating to watch; there's always so much happening just under the surface. Her nuanced portrayal obviously shows Ellen's terror, but also a steely determination to protect her family and the president.
Show creators Alon Aranya, Omri Givon, Rotem Shamir and Jeffrey Nachmanoff pack the "Hostages" pilot with a ton of side plots. Ellen's husband, Brian (Tate Donovan), is having an affair. Her kids have issues of their own. We learn that Carlisle is a single dad raising a daughter because his wife is in a coma. Carlisle might be the engineer of the assassination plan, or like Ellen a victim forced into doing wrong by more ruthless conspirators.
By presenting "Hostages" as a limited series, CBS should attract viewers interested in serialized storytelling—as long as they don't drag things out too long. The show's basic premise shouldn't last beyond one season—Ellen either does or doesn't kill the president and she either saves or dooms her family.
Both "The Blacklist" and "Hostages" promise to bring the suspense of "24" back to Monday nights, so get those DVRs ready. But if you have to choose one over the other, at this point I'd go with Spader.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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