In a world where one of the biggest movies of all time is called Endgame, It's a pretty bold choice to call a show The Endgame. It's not like NBC's new crime drama The Endgame is trying to claim a Marvel connection, and it's not going to compete with Marvel in terms of popularity. But based on the two episodes of The Endgame I've seen, the show is missing some crucial components that would make it a sustainable ongoing series. It's not as fun as it could be, as it goes for an overly serious tone when it should be playful. And it's so much like The Blacklist that you'll just wish you were watching The Blacklist instead.
The Endgame is a heist thriller series about two women on opposite sides of the law whose personal lives have a lot in common. Elena Federova (Morena Baccarin) is a Ukrainian arms trafficker with a global empire. She's a criminal mastermind who's always several steps ahead of law enforcement. In the pilot, she allows herself to be apprehended. Simultaneously, her operatives take over seven bank branches in New York City where she's storing various important items — in the first two episodes, incriminating information about corrupt public officials. The only fed Federova will work with is FBI agent Val Turner (Ryan Michelle Bathe). Turner is a straight arrow who has so much faith in the law that she dropped a dime on her own husband, FBI agent Owen (Kamal Angelo Bolden), when she found out he was taking bribes. He's currently in prison, and in the pilot he unexpectedly serves her with divorce papers. Owen's apparent crookedness has made Val a bit of a pariah in the FBI, as people suspect that she's dirty, too, even though she's clean as a whistle.
Turner and Federova previously crossed paths when Turner was working a case in Africa, and Fedorova has taken an interest in her, because she admires Turner's moral code. Federova has a moral code herself, and enacts her own brand of vigilante justice on people she deems worse than her. Federova wants Turner to become her "partner" in some sort of enterprise. Federova's motives and intentions are totally unclear, though, and the show is about the push-and-pull of Turner trying to figure out what Federova is up to before Federova can reveal it to her. But first, Federova wants Turner to understand how the facts of their lives — their traumatic childhoods that turned them into fighters, their complicated relationships with their husbands, their status as underestimated women in male-dominated fields — make them much more similar than Turner would like to admit.
If this premise — a criminal mastermind with a mysterious interest in a certain FBI agent forms a partnership with her to enact justice, while the agent tries to figure out what this mastermind really wants — sounds familiar, it's because it's the same as The Blacklist, NBC's other conspiracy thriller. The Blacklist, now in its ninth season, is long in the tooth, and NBC is probably hoping The Endgame can serve as a replacement for The Blacklist whenever The Blacklist ends. But The Endgame lacks the thing that has kept The Blacklist going as long as it has: star power. The Blacklist wouldn't work without James Spader's incredible charisma as crime boss Raymond Reddington. People keep tuning in because they like hanging out with Red Reddington and want to see what he'll do next. Major cast members have come and gone around Spader, and the show has kept going. Morena Baccarin and Ryan Michelle Bathe — longtime supporting players getting starring roles in a large-scale series for the first time — do not feel irreplaceable, and the show's clunky, obvious writing doesn't give them much to work with as they try to win our collective attention.
The Endgame so far also lacks the side characters and sense of humor this type of show needs. The other parts of The Blacklist that have helped it toward long-term success are a deep bench of supporting characters played by strong actors like Harry Lennix who can step up and take some of the pressure off Spader for a few scenes or even an entire episode every now and then, and it doesn't take itself overly seriously (remember the episode with the mad entomologist who killed people with bugs?). The Endgame, by contrast, is quite humorless. A show about a criminal mastermind is supposed to be fun, and yet the closest The Endgame comes to playfulness is Federova planting a steamer trunk full of clothes in Turner's car so that Turner can deliver her something besides a prison jumpsuit to wear while she's in custody. The show puts Baccarin in glamorous outfits, but doesn't give her character a larger-than-life personality to match. There are no comic relief characters, no wisecracks, and no levity.
The plan for The Endgame seems to be for it to become a procedural where Federova and Turner become uneasy partners who bring down a new bad guy every week, with overarching season or series-long mysteries about what Federova is really up to. That is a durable premise, obviously, but in order to get there, the show needs to loosen up and embrace its inherent ridiculousness. The fact that it doesn't right out of the gate is kind of a surprise, considering that the pilot is directed by Justin Lin, who revitalized the Fast & Furious franchise by untethering it from any sort of reality. The Endgame feels like it wants to be a little crazy, and it's straining against its self-imposed strictures. A wise man on a show that's lasted a very long time once said "I don't know how many years on this Earth I got left; I'm gonna get real weird with it." If The Endgame wants to last longer than a season, it should emulate him.
Premieres: Monday, Feb. 21 at 10/9c on NBC; streaming the day after on Peacock
Who's in it: Morena Baccarin, Ryan Michelle Bathe
Who's behind it: Nicholas Wootton (NYPD Blue), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Justin Lin (Fast & Furious)
For fans of: The Blacklist, heists, people saying "We're not so different, you and I"
How many episodes we watched: 2