The Endgame. NBC. Monday, February 21, 10 p.m.
In the long run, it's a good bet that NBC's new crime drama The Endgame is going to prove infuriatingly terrible. But for now, it's electrifying. It's the crack of television, except you don't need a pipe, just a remote. Start watching, and you won't be able to stop, until probably a few months down the road, when you rise from your couch in a dizzy stupor, your lips cracked, your kidneys corroded and your mind reeling with a strange desire to stuff that remote into a maximally painful bodily orifice of an NBC executive.
The Endgame has a frightening resemblance to Lost, or Fringe, or Manifest. To be clear, though, it's not science fiction that's liable to drift into time travel, alternate worlds, or the other scoundrel tools of lazy screenwriters. (Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with enigmatically vanished airliners, a thread I just notice runs through all these shows. Remind me not watch that summer series about Amelia Earhart and the space weasels.)
But the frenzied speed with which The Endgame moves and the mystery at its center that excuses a lot of illogical and fallacious plot points is very reminiscent of the weird stuff that popped up in those other shows: "Omigod, did Sawyer just kill a polar bear? What's a polar bear doing in the middle of a tropical Pacific island? I can't wait to find out what's going on!" Except you never did. All those Barnum & Bailey gimmicks were just throw-ins by screenwriters who wanted to get their show on the road but hadn't mapped out their final destination before they started shooting—and pretty much never did.
But as every junkie ever said, that's for tomorrow. Right now, The Endgame is a crackerjack of a caper show, a tautly edited blend of action and wit that blows along like a runaway train. We can worry later about whether it will arrive in Chicago or Mars.
The Endgame is essentially a standoff between two female nemeses. Elena Federova (Morena Baccarin), a Ukrainian arms dealer of mythically ruthless reputation, is locked up—without, it seems, a warrant or any of that bothersome technical stuff—in an underground Homeland Security detention center on Long Island. The feds intend to question her about a list of stuff longer, and much nastier, than the one Santa Claus carries on Christmas Eve. "No one knows you're here," an FBI boss smugly informs her, "and we've got plenty of time."
The cops hand Federova a legal pad and tell her to start listing all the names of all her criminal contacts. She dutifully begins writing, but her wiseguy smile suggests she's up to something else. Within minutes, reports of violent New York City bank takeovers—seven, in all—start rolling in, with all signs pointing to Federova as the intellectual author.
The feds reluctantly counter by bringing in FBI agent Val Turner (Ryan Michelle Bathe), a hard-ass agent who's had some success against Federova but is currently in disfavor—to put it mildly—after her husband, another FBI agent, was caught taking money from a Colombian drug cartel.
Watching the clash between the two women is epically entertaining. Federova is all smug, taunting smiles as she unveils a criminal option of uncertain aim but exquisite planning. Turner is a study in a relentless rage against anybody she perceives as a bad guy, an obsession rage that has warped her almost beyond human recognition. She busted her own husband in the drug cartel case.
Turner, unlike her bosses, instinctively grasps that what's going is about much more than emptying bank vaults—but can't figure out what that is. When she disobeys orders to anticipate some of Federova's moves, she's always just moments too late—and her fury is only fueled by the little Post-It notes left by Federova's minions with the barbed message "YOU WERE RIGHT." An air of moral ambiguity creeps into the plot when Federova deliberately lets slip that she's being aided by official corruption. Who really are the good guys in this struggle?
Baccarin, who played the pretty space-alien lizard with a taste for human flesh in the 2009 version of V and the conflicted wife of an Al Queda mole in Homeland Security, gives an entertainingly over-the-top performance as the criminal mastermind. My favorite of her many moments came in a flashback scene where she's lying naked in a pastoral meadow, entwined with a lover. Suddenly bells sound. Murmurs she: "We're going to miss our wedding."
But it's also worth keeping in mind that nothing in The Endgame is meaningless or played simply for laughs. "There's always another layer, isn't there?" Turner asks Federova in an unguarded moment where a kind of grudging admiration for her foe is creeping through. Replies the arms trafficker: "Always." Let's just hope it doesn't turn out to be an alternate universe or a time machine.