“The Black List” and “Ironside.”
That’s it. The sum total of what I most looked forward to in this upcoming new fall TV season. Both are from one network – NBC – which confirms, for the thousandth time at least, that if you’re looking for the most tantalizing TV shows, sight unseen, you can’t do better than finding a network that has been doing very badly indeed. Nothing spurs creativity like disaster. They go together like bacon and eggs, bagels and cream cheese and pomp and circumstance.
When down and close to being out, you’ll try anything, including some things you might have been scared and leery of before.
It’s not, by the way, that there aren’t several new series on all networks, broadcast and cable, that I’m interested in. But “The Blacklist” starring James Spader and the new “Ironside” starring Blair Underwood topped my list.
I’ve seen the pilots of both, and the news is half good: One of the two series has nothing but promise. The other is not-so-hot but will probably be watchable by those who ask precious little of their televisions besides being on.
The one with promise is “The Blacklist,” which officially begins at 10 p.m. Monday. Think of it as “The Silence of the Lambs” meets “Homeland” meets, yes, “Cain’s Hundred,” the ancient series in which Peter Mark Richman (the actor formerly known as just Mark Richman) played a lawyer with 100 miscreants he was out to exterminate for society’s sake. And, this time, all with a side order of “Person of Interest.”
In other words, it’s another TV series confirming in raised italics that the most influential pulp fiction mind of our time remains Thomas Harris, the former reporter who wrote “Black Sunday” and “Red Dragon” (and who created Hannibal Lecter) and, therefore, put the cannibal killer Lecter into the same pursuit as FBI novice Clarice Starling.
It’s pure “Silence of the Lambs” in its opening minutes – an ex-Fed and evil mastermind named Reddington (Spader at his joyfully decadent best) strolls arrogantly into FBI headquarters, puts his hands on his head, promises to tell all about a “blacklist” of dastardly international fiends in the making but he’ll only talk to a brand new FBI profiler named Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a young woman loaded down with psychological baggage but planning with her adored husband to top off a happy marriage with an adored child.
What happens to all of those plans is just one of many upheavals in the show’s pilot, which brings the basic “Silence of the Lambs” plot – evil genius takes on an FBI acolyte – into the world of “Homeland,” where the gifted female investigator is being unhinged completely by wickedly devious international plots.
The first name on Reddington’s “Blacklist” is Ranko Zamani, who has to be stopped from using a child in an act of ugly mass terrorism. How much Reddington has to do with that plot is what, apparently, we’ll be wondering with every sinister development in the series.
If it weren’t for the weirdly impressive success (qualitatively, not ratingwise) of NBC’s “Hannibal,” we might not have seen Spader oozing this much weekly evil on “The Blacklist,” but it all works. There are worse ways to spend time in front of a TV set.
“Ironside,” beginning at 10 p.m. Oct. 2 on NBC, is one of them. It was a hugely interesting idea to remake Raymond Burr’s old series with a heartthrob like Underwood in a wheelchair instead of Burr, who occupied the chair like a formidable slab of Canadian bacon. In practice, the pilot seems very much a mistake.
Burr’s strength as a hero in “Perry Mason” and “Ironside” is that he was, in movies, usually a “heavy” in every way – a defiantly oversize man who was either a haunting villain (“Rear Window”) or good guy you were supposed to hate, anyway (“A Place in the Sun”). He made for an interesting TV “hero” whose eyes and size told a very different story from the benevolence of the lines he was supposed to say.
The worst he was on “Ironside” was demanding and crusty with his underlings. You inferred the brutality within on your own.
Underwood, though, plays a maliciously thuggish cop who likes to abuse suspects.
In the most appalling scene of the “Ironside” pilot, there is a moment of Underwood in a wheelchair doing what most people do when they sit on one without really needing to – he plays around with it as if it were a cool new toy for grown-ups.
I have seen people in wheelchairs do virtuoso stunts in them as part of their daily lives, but never as a kind of play. They were, rather, working their way through necessity.
Because what I saw was only a pilot, that little fillip may not finally make it to the air. If it does, I’ll be fascinated to see what the wheelchair community makes of it. Underwood has ostentatiously claimed to have special feeling for those in wheelchairs because his mother has long suffered from MS. And, no doubt, he does have such feelings. Absolutely none of them are evident from what he does on screen.
He is as insistent on filling up the screen in close-up as Burr, but with little but good looks to fill it with. If it turns out to be unwatchable, it will become more a matter of reflex attention rather than actual interest. Too bad. A smart new “Ironside” that had been well thought out could have been hugely interesting.
• IN BRIEF: Sunday’s episode of “Breaking Bad” was, by significant agreement among the show’s most serious fans, one of the most emotionally draining hours of TV they’d ever seen. And to think the show has only two more episodes left for all time. This Sunday, its competition, “Dexter,” has its series finale.
A good deal less involving, to put it mildly, was the season finale on Sunday of “The Newsroom,” which should, at the end, have been accompanied by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing “Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere.”
It was worth seeing for one thing and one thing only: Jane Fonda as the grand media empress pretending to be high and bouncing along delivering spacey Aaron Sorkin dialogue. Lest anyone forget how great an actress she is – always – it was a great reminder.