Too many shows begin with a woman’s body in a bag. The pretty girl; the good girl; whom everyone loves; raped, murdered and chopped to bits; shoved in a bag.
Welcome to the show! Now, let’s watch all these fellas figure out what happened to her. Hello, Twin Peaks. Hello, True Detective. Hello, Top of the Lake. Hello, The Killing. The dead girl TV trope might be as old as the crime drama genre itself.
Don’t get me wrong, the shows listed above are some of my favorites. They’re all well-written, smartly shot and gripping in their drama. But aren’t we all a little sick of young, beautiful women being used as pegs on which story lines are hung, mysteries to solve, McGuffins to chase in someone else’s story?
Top of the Lake ranks in my top five favorite shows of all time, perhaps because its first season does something different: The dead (or in this case, missing) girl’s plight is a vehicle for another woman’s story — a woman whose investigation into the disappearance of one young girl turns into an unveiling of a culture of rampant sexual violence in a small town in New Zealand.
But what if the dead girl could stand up and take control of her own story?
I did not expect to like NBC’s Blindspot, and in the pilot’s first act, it met all of my worst expectations. A frightened damsel, Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), is discovered naked in Times Square and taken in by a team of FBI agents, who quickly drop everything to figure out what has happened to her. They discover that she was injected with a mind-erasing drug, and has no idea who she is. Her entire body was recently tattooed with cryptic symbols and images; the wounds are still fresh. On her back, a name is tattooed: Kurt Weller, FBI. Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) is called in. Does he know this woman? No … Maybe … No. But he will do everything to figure out who did this to her and why.
In order to begin deciphering her tattoos — and so a team of scientists and code breakers don’t need to stare at her naked all day — Jane is placed in a futuristic scanner — naked, of course — and mapped from head to toe. She looks like something between Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and a Barbie in a display case. The image is recycled throughout the episode, because who doesn’t love science and erotica mixed together? Sigh.
Then, damaged damsel is sent to try to get some sleep. When left alone with her plight, staring at her unrecognizable body in the mirror, she breaks down, writhing in emotion; naked, again.
But as the tattoo clues begin to yield leads to solve crimes before they happen — maybe somewhere is a tattoo of Gary Hobson’s cat! — the FBI agents sheltering the fragile object of their investigation are in for a surprise. Jane knows how to speak Chinese. When provoked with violence, well, let’s just say she fights like a girl. A badass, special ops-trained superwoman.
By the end of the pilot, Blindspot has flipped the script. Jane is, in fact, the smartest and most capable person in the room. Sure, she doesn’t know who she is or what happened to her, but — surprise! — she is valuable for more than just her body.
In fact, in Agent Kurt Weller’s world, the women are often the smartest people in the room. The computer hacker on the team, Tasha (Audrey Esparza), is a woman. The lead code breaker, Patterson (the brilliant and always compelling Ashley Johnson), is a woman. Weller’s boss, Mayfair (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is both a voice of reason and a caller of shots; and is also a woman.
Blindspot is a straightforward action series. Its fight scenes are expertly choreographed, and its dialogue is neither profound nor obvious. Watching it feels almost like watching a good summer blockbuster. The writers trust their audience and don’t mince words, but also don’t ask us to work too hard. Exchanges like this one between Jane and Weller are a big overwrought, but they work just fine:
Jane: “Please take him alive. He’s the only one that might have answers.”
Weller — with a healthy pause and a furrowed brow: “We’ll try our best.”
When silly banter like this threatens to become tedious, or when a preachy story line about the use of military drones on American soil gets a little too pontifical, a building explodes or a familiar stranger appears, and we are reinvested in the central mantra: “who did this and why?”
The show’s pacing is spot on, and both episodes kept me hooked straight through to their final moments. In what seems like a blatant ratings play, both episodes ended with a dramatic twist and a cliffhanger. I watched the pilot a day before the second episode, and was practically biting my hands off waiting to find out what would happen next.
It would be easy for Blindspot to be just another drama about a woman in distress for the talented, sea-glass-eyed Stapleton. She could be an empty object, a catalyst. But even stripped of her name and her identity, made an anonymous every-woman, she is not. She is the catalyst and the reaction.
Blindspot airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Full episodes are available on Hulu Plus the next day.