No doubt envious of the water-cooler success of Showtime's much-blogged-about political espionage thriller Homeland, CBS and NBC are each debuting similarly themed series this month, both of which premiere tonight before Homeland itself returns on Sunday.
Both The Blacklist, NBC's show starring James Spader, and Hostages, a CBS project with Toni Collette and Dylan McDermott, are on at 10 p.m. Each, in one way or another, tries to capitalize on viewer interest in national security intrigue. Both series take place in Washington D.C. and its surrounding areas. They both feature a compelling lead actor who is either a good guy doing bad things or a bad guy doing good things. The Blacklist even gets some extra Homeland cred for featuring Diego Klattenhoff, who played Homeland's huevos-rancheros cookin' Mike.
It makes sense that the Homeland-effect would come into play this season. Copycats don't always arrive immediately after their originals, they need at least one development cycle to generate. Shows that took a Mad Men-esque interest in the 1960s, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, didn't arrive until a few years after the advertising drama became a critical darling. Regardless of when creators had the ideas for all of these shows, networks become interested after seeing success somewhere else.
The Blacklist is the more giddy of the two new Homeland wannabes. James Spader stars as "Red" Reddington, a would-be hero (he was top of his Naval Academy class) who disappeared from the grid only to reappear as a criminal mastermind. Reddington gives himself up to the feds with the professed goal of helping stop a terrorist plot, but will only speak to Elizabeth Keen, a young agent with issues of her own. She's not bipolar, a la Carrie Mathison, but she was abandoned by her father in childhood (hint hint) and might not be totally mentally stable. The pilot is twisty and turn-y and action-heavy. Unlike Homeland, the plan of the main terrorist bad guy is revealed quickly. Like Homeland, his motives involve revenge for the killing of his family. Still, The Blacklist is fun stuff. Spader purrs and prances in his usual way and seems to be having a grand old time. It's a bit infectious.
Hostages is more grim. The series concerns Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), a surgeon scheduled to operate on the president when she and her family are taken hostage under the pretense that they'll be released if she lets the commander-in-chief die under her watch. The guy running the hostage operation is something of a Nicholas Brody-type: Dylan McDermott's Duncan Carlisle is a federal agent by day, hostage-taker by night, who obviously has complicated motives. Like Brody, we don't know what side he's really on, or if he's on any one side at all. While The Blacklist has fun with its material, Hostages takes itself very seriously. But, like Homeland it looks at what happens when terrorism lets itself into the home, as happened with Brody's family.
Both shows aren't quite as edgy as Homeland. This is network television after all. We're not dealing with America's relationship to Muslim extremism here—at least not yet. So far the threats are internal or nebulous. Homeland, as our Richard Lawson has argued, is also sort of silly, but its cable sheen and stellar performances from its actors let it pass as a higher art form. Still, it's a testament to what Homeland has done in its past two seasons that these shows can borrow from it and still be enjoyable hours of television.