The television medium, and the act of watching television, have always been remarkably surreal, and they only grow more so by the day. The very action of sitting and watching flickering pixels on a screen which, in most cases, is smaller than you are stands in direct contradiction to everything we might call living, enjoyable and stimulating as this non-life might be. For many viewers, it requires absorption; for other viewers, it requires absorption and darkness; for still others, it requires absorption, darkness, and complete silence. As time has passed, TV has only become more strange, and private; at one time, the screen formed the hub of a gathering place, but it is less so now, as increasing numbers of people watch television on their own terms: on their phones, on their computer screens, at off –hours, while commuting. The idea of scheduling one’s day around a TV show is increasingly uncommon. Given these developments, it stands to reason that James Spader, a shocking presence on The Practice and Boston Legal in the past, and a rousing presence in NBC's The Blacklist, would be its ideal actor.
The reasons why Spader is so appropriate for television have to do both with his qualities as an actor and, actually, with the history of television itself, in the last 25 to 30 years. Spader’s arrival in his first major TV role, that of Alan Shore on The Practice, was not universally well-received at its outset. Why was this? Well, because his film roles in the past had often contained a healthy layer of sexuality—and often warped sexuality. The three most glaring examples of this would be his remarkable breakthrough performance in Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, in which he filmed women talking about sex (and doing other stuff) and then pleasured himself to videotapes of the sessions, giving an empathetic face to the perversity of voyeurism; his role as James Ballard in David Cronenberg’s Crash, including a sex scene with a scar in a woman’s leg; and Steven Shainberg's Secretary, in which his officious lawyer Mr. Grey “got to know” his employee by masturbating on her panties as she bent over his desk, skirt up. What was this man doing in a fairly nondescript show about a law firm? Everything and nothing. At the time, it seemed fairly clear that he had been added to boost ratings and make the show more exciting; he did both, in spades. His character’s open-faced form of brazen dishonesty gave considerable texture to a show which was gradually building a wall around itself consisting entirely of predictable plots (the same rut which some of Law and Order’s variants have fallen into). His great comfort with sleaziness and with destructive transgressions provided a meaningful satire of the nature of the law profession and of the hidden altruism within many shows about that profession, in which show’s characters become heroes by making the “right” choice. He has roughly the same role in The Blacklist’s Raymond “Red” Reddington, a “most wanted” criminal whose wealth of information makes him ultimately indispensable to his pursuers, and he plays it with the same aggressively insouciant quality, as if every line he speaks is not only the best line ever written for a television actor but is also the most explosive; and the more dramatically he speaks the line, the more of a detonation it sets off. In a sense, Spader’s delivery is like that of an old-fashioned stage actor, speaking to an audience who may or may not absorb what he is saying. The simplest exchanges become broad-voiced utterances; whether you understand the motivation for the line becomes secondary importance—the main thing is the momentously frank delivery. And so, in pushing himself outwards in this theatrical way, isn’t Spader fulfilling the earliest dream of television, which was to provide a home-based version of the theatrical experience?
But, back to the present. Spader is occupying, with unusual elan, a historical moment in TV watching and reception: he is with us as TV becomes an almost entirely private personal phenomenon, in which viewers develop relationships with characters and plotlines that they cannot quite shake, sometimes to an almost humorous degree, and in which viewers choose which shows they wish to watch at length—and at how much length. It is indeed significant, then, that Spader’s breakout role, his turn as bully Steff in Pretty in Pink notwithstanding, was in sex, lies and videotape, a film about a man who derives his sole sexual pleasure from watching images on a TV screen, after the fact, in total solitude and at his command. Fast forward 25 years: many viewers these days watch television long after its air date, and with utter control over the conditions of viewership. In 1989, when the film was released, the VCR, as we know it in its home-friendly form, was less than 10 years old, and rapidly gaining in popularity. By starring in such a film, Spader associated himself indelibly with what has become a dominant mode of viewership: what I want, when I want it. The binge watch. The repeat view. TV shows ranging from Moonlighting to St. Elsewhere to (even) Mystery Science Theater 3000 nudged us, at this time, towards a smarter view of what we were seeing on the screen: couldn’t we view a multi-episode TV show as a kind of novel? Couldn’t we expect more from television? It’s hard to think that that the development of VCR capability, giving viewers the chance to re-watch and scrutinize certain shows, didn’t contribute to this change. Granted, the tapes Spader’s character was watching in Soderbergh’s film were not the VHS tapes we might be familiar with, but the impulse was the same.
Of course, The Blacklist is not necessarily the best vehicle for Spader. The episodic nature of the show guarantees that viewers will not devour it in the same way they devour more intellectually complex shows like Breaking Bad or The Wire. Also, each episode is built around a different number on the FBI’s Most Wanted list; these figures become much like the villains in comic strips, or their TV counterparts. Each villain is neatly tracked down by the end of each episode each mystery resolved. Nevertheless, Spader's presence, and his history, and his delivery—which constantly seems to look back at us as if to ask, If you think you’re above this, why are you watching it?—raise a question about television, which, though it may have been raised before, can’t be asked enough. As television continues to become more nuanced and intellectually demanding, its approach, and its casts, will need to change. Spader is unique in that he doesn’t give in to the demands of acting for a smaller screen—the pandering, the mincing, the mugging; the charge we receive from him is based on his staunch defiance of those requirements. Perhaps his performance will draw some new colleagues in the future, from a place in which the screen is brighter and larger, and the audience is darker and more mysterious.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.