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posted: 9/22/2013 6:00 AM

James Spader as a turncoat criminal mastermind

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  • James Spader plays "Red" Raymond Reddington in "The Blacklist," premiering Monday, Sept. 23.

    James Spader plays "Red" Raymond Reddington in "The Blacklist," premiering Monday, Sept. 23.
    Associated Press/NBC

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- At first glance, "The Blacklist" bears an obvious resemblance to "The Silence of the Lambs." Here's a brilliant, twisted captive playing cat-and-mouse with a young female cop. Each wants something from the other in this dicey partnership.

But "The Blacklist" (which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on NBC) is an action-intrigue drama with even more tricks up its sleeve than wily Hannibal Lecter.

For one thing, its criminal mastermind isn't an irredeemable monster. He's a charismatic ex-government agent named Raymond "Red" Reddington who has tied the FBI in knots for years as he masterminded dirty deals for international scoundrels while staying out of reach of authorities.

Now, for some reason, he has surrendered to the FBI with an offer to share what he knows (and he knows not only where the bodies are buried, but also who buried them). It's not clear why he is speaking up, nor is it clear how far he can be trusted when he does, but he seems to want to lend a hand in catching the bad guys he used to assist -- at least, if the FBI is willing to play ball.

His most peculiar requirement: He will only talk to Liz Keen, an FBI profiler on her first day at the job. Portrayed by Megan Boone ("Law & Order: Los Angeles"), Liz is a sexier version of "Lambs"' frumpy, no-nonsense Clarice Starling. But there's no hint that Reddington is nursing a crush.

"Why involve me?" she asks him in their first lockdown encounter. "There's nothing special about me!"

"Ahhh, I think you're very special," he smiles mysteriously. "I'm gonna make you famous, Lizzie."

For starters: Reddington helps Liz thwart an international terrorist who kidnaps the young daughter of a U.S. government official. But the case isn't cracked without misdirection, manipulation and mischief on the part of Reddington, who seems to like toying with Liz as much as settling scores.

Thus do Red and Liz emerge as the fall's most refreshing odd couple, on the season's most promising new drama.

One reason "The Blacklist" works so well: The producers locked up James Spader to star as Reddington.

Spader, whose previous TV credits include "The Office" and "Boston Legal," has never been better, deploying his elliptical charm to promise the FBI access to his lengthy roster of politicians, mobsters, hackers, spies -- "the criminals who matter," he taunts the agents, "the ones you can't find because you don't even know they exist."

But what will be the price for his expert assistance? Already Liz feels threatened by him: Reddington somehow knows about, and blows the whistle on, her secret past. He also seems privy to some weird things she never knew about her husband (Ryan Eggold, "90210"), who seems a loving househusband busy trying to arrange an adoption for him and his wife (and keeps insisting, "Our family comes first," before she dashes off to save the world).

Suffice it to say, the "Blacklist" premiere ends with tantalizing questions that dwarf the immediate crisis. Getting to know this series' characters should be fun for weeks, or even years, to come.

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