Mel's Diner: 'The Blacklist’s Bokenkamp: Primetime’s Unlikely Hero

Feature writer-turned-freshman hit creator on who Red really is, keeping secrets and why he lives in Nebraska

THE DISH: Like the leads in the hit freshman drama he created—an FBI rookie and a criminal-catching criminal—The Blacklist creator-executive producer Jon Bokenkamp is himself one of primetime’s unlikeliest heroes this season.

His pilot script for the NBC series, produced by Sony Pictures TV, was among the most buzzed-about even before James Spader came on as the lead and before the series scored a post-The Voice time slot. The Blacklist went on to become the top-rated drama among the Big Four for Q4 2013, the top-rated new show of the season and NBC’s most-watched new drama since ER (and that’s going back 19 years). It got a second season pickup in December and has set all-time industry records for most time-shifted viewership. Industry watchers are even starting to ask if SPT might bring the show out early for an offnet sale. All of this, of course, offers evidence that a big, buzzy hit still really can be born on broadcast.

Yet The Blacklist is the first TV show for Bokenkamp, whose feature film credits include Taking Lives and last year’s The Call. He didn’t even own a television for a decade. And he lives in…Nebraska.

Over an 8 a.m. breakfast at Toast Bakery Café in Los Angeles a few days after a big reveal aired (Red was right: Liz’s husband Tom is not who he says he is), Bokenkamp exhibited a humble, fearless approach to primetime—and one of the strongest handshakes you’ll find in Hollywood.

He talked about how he manages to run a TV show while living in Nebraska, his “shotgun marriage” to his fellow exec producers and whether Red really is Elizabeth’s father. (Just kidding on that last one—but he did say who knows the answer to that.) Edited highlights of the conversation follow.

How did you and your fellow Blacklist producers get together?

I met John Fox through some feature meetings and he kind of pitched a version of what the show could be, and I came up with a pitch for the show. My agents introduced me to John Eisendrath (Alias) because I have no experience in TV and he has tons of experience in TV. And he was originally sort of the insurance policy, but he’s become a great partner. It kind of came together from Fox from the producing side, conceptual side, and John from the boots-onthe- ground side. It’s been a really good marriage. Shotgun marriage, but good.

When it comes to the relationship between Red and Elizabeth, and who is good, who is bad, who is who they say they are, do you know all of that? And if you do know, how far out have you planned when to reveal these things?

0303_MelsDiner_Check.jpgWe know big signposts. I know where I see the series ending. I know the story behind Red and I know his connection to Liz. Within that are a lot of questions. I know what I feel would be the big signposts of the show, but how we’re going to get there, I don’t know. And there’s a lot that I don’t know as well. That’s part of the fun of the show to me, is how are we going to surprise ourselves? How are we going to arrive at those big moments?

I don’t think any of the characters are either all bad or all good. I’m much more interested in the gray and, you know, are they redeemable? And how bad is Red? Is he redeemable? What is he afraid of? I think the more complex the answer is, the more fun it is to write.

Who knows all of this?

A good chunk of the writers and John Eisendrath and John Fox, and Spader knows a good amount.… I sort of have different conversations with different people. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Ryan [Eggold], who plays Tom, about who he may be or where he may be going. But I don’t necessarily have that same conversation with Megan [Boone, who plays Elizabeth].