Novelist and Screenwriter Richard Christian Matheson Talks Jon Bokenkamp’s The Blacklist

When a network TV show audaciously shuns Etch-a-Sketch plotting for genuinely complex subject matter, it's something worth celebrating.

It is grand theater.

The show broods and mesmerizes. Symptoms and complexes abound. Agendas blizzard. Criminals are introduced with unnerving aliases like disorders from the DSM-5. Everyone has trust issues. The good guys are as fractured as the bad; sometimes they’re even the same person. Every relationship suffers bleak confusions. As world-class maniacs scheme despicably, in the FBI’s steely corridors and steelier eyes, there is dread.

Intensely filmed and directed, it looks like rich cinema, subtly inlaid with Emmy-worthy performances and addictive scores. The Etch-a-Sketch plotting of most one-hour series, turning expository knobs to create drama-like shapes, is all but ignored, replaced by disobedient invention.

And then there’s Red.

With his insecticide glee and snazzy duds, the Grim Reaper couldn’t be more merry or bespoke. Raymond “Red” Reddington has seen it all; his freeze-dried stare mercilessly Zen, his pensive jaw crushing thoughts like lurid cud as bad guys, shot point blank, keel over. The Cirque du Sanguine of it all enthralls and, as ringmaster, James Spader is a Cat-5 kick, boyishly eager amid the depravity, like a peppy scout gone feral. Red has lived a thousand lives, perhaps taken more, and his dapper spasms of pique result in squeezed triggers, balletic violence and condescending asides. In his Möbius realm, cruelty and decency bear striking resemblances.

The show, created by Jon Bokenkamp, has an irresistible concept. A former U.S. Navy Officer who vanished for 20 years, becoming one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted, Reddington surrenders himself and agrees to help the Bureau bring down a vile roster of their most elusive criminals; his horrific, often brilliant peers, who are wretched gargoyles all. In exchange, he stipulates, he must be given immunity and work with FBI Special Agent and profiler Elizabeth Keen – reasons unprovided. The series’ writers are torturously coy with those reasons, and Elizabeth herself understands Red no better than we — an ongoing agony for her, which Red tourniquets but never heals.

The stories are brainy mayhem, obsessed with impulses and motives of the unhinged, scaling death-zones of perversity as clocks urgently tick, black Suburbans explode, and computer keyboards are fretfully pounded. One-by-one, the repellent list shrinks, Red’s enemies and former associates, stellar if only for their bizarre fixations and sadisms, plucked and snuffed. Despite it all, Red has a mostly jolly time, his free-associative riffs and upbeat tales of impetuous jaunts often a tad Krafft-Ebing but always sublime. They are his transient respite, a way to recall fleeting joys from a world malignant and impersonal; though show-stoppers, smartly, they never halt the action. More connected than presidents or kings, Red is fluent in subterfuge, X-ray senses alert to everything but his own emotions, and there is no character on TV more sinister, complex or entertaining.

Television writing gets hogtied by exposition, and as a screenwriter-producer for TV and film, I greatly admire The Blacklist for embracing freefall, whenever Red shifts plot direction, with a wicked rack-and-pinion that balls up the map. His dismissive acuity leads rattled FBI agents, often a step or two behind, mired in procedural sludge, to truths — many shocking. Red never makes it easy for them; it would minimize entertainment value for him and us. To write a tight, one-hour story and, mid-stream, abandon linear struts, assuring pieces fatefully merge, is no small trick. The Blacklist does it every week.

The series is also an opera of psychological duplicities. These include the possibility that Red may be Elizabeth’s father or, most recently, her sin-eater. And that her ex-husband, covert operative Tom, who claims multiple selves and truths, including (but not limited to) an actual love for her, is a nowhere man. Her life with him, once buffed to a vacant sheen, continually implodes; despite her discovery of his lies, she can’t stop having feelings for him. Perhaps love does trump betrayal, a reluctant, unadvertised theme of the series. And while The Blacklist can be a horror show of trauma and unflinching torments, from vicious experiments and pleading victims to tubs of septic goo, skinned freaks, tools of pain and ghastly reveals, always there are stunning turns of unexpected grace and justice.

Megan Boone, playing Agent Elizabeth Keen, is nuanced and hypnotic. Equally so Ryan Eggold, who plays Tom with virtuoso detail. Keen’s courageous partner, FBI Special Agent Donald Ressler, played to perfection by Diego Klattenhoff, can break your heart with his devotion to her; eyes tender but sworn to the Bureau. There isn’t a weak link in the cast.

But in the end, it’s Spader’s show, a straightjacket Hippodrome filled with irreverence and rhapsody. In a series where so many are darkly extinguished, Red’s arias remind us that the world remains a banquet of beauty, not only sorrows. With Luciferian verve, he is a sociopath’s sociopath; a bon vivant, embracing every moment of life…even the ones he takes.

Hell has never been hipper.

Richard Christian Matheson is a #1 bestselling author and prolific screenwriter/producer for television and film who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Bryan Singer, Stephen King and many others. Matheson’s dark, psychological stories have appeared in 175 major anthologies, including many “Year’s Best” volumes. His critically hailed novels and collections include Created By, The Ritual of Illusion, Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks and Dystopia. His third collection, Zoopraxis, will be published in 2015. He is president of Matheson Entertainment.