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Theatrically demented: This toxic recipe makes The Blacklist a gem

There's a very fine, madly inventive drama now back on the air. The Blacklist. But first, as they say in the racket, the news: Two new U.S. network shows start tonight.

An educated guess is this – you can probably ignore both and live your life in blissful ignorance of their alleged charms. But if you really, really must know, here's the gist.

Bad Teacher (CBS, Global, 9:30 p.m.) is derived from the movie of the same name starring Cameron Diaz. In this variation a scheming floozy who's a now dumped and broke former trophy wife, fakes her way into A job as a high-school teacher with the sole purpose of finding a new, rich husband. Hilarity ensues.

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Like may CBS comedies, this one's an uneasy alliance of the crude and the phony-heartfelt. Our heroine Meredith (Ari Graynor) causes havoc and sticks her stilettos way too hard into a guy's crotch but she puts mean girls in their place, showing she has feelings.

Black Box (ABC, 10 p.m.) is as irritatingly pretentious as network TV gets. It's about Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), a world-famous neurologist who is called, "the Marco Polo of the brain," but who secretly suffers from bipolar disorder. Fascinated with her own ailment, she often abandons her medication and we witness her hallucinatory experiences. She dances in the street to music she hears in her head. She comes on to unsuitable men. But she's really, really smart. She's a punk, female Dr. House-type genius.

This heroine also has a shrink to whom she confides her dark secrets and fears. Said shrink is played by Vanessa Redgrave at her most grating, all actorly, gravitas-voice, delivering platitudes. Airing after Grey's Anatomy, Black Box is one of about a dozen female-centric dramas ABC has pushed desperately at viewers this season and, as usual, is airing something more muddled than meaningful.

Moving along, one of few gems in this network season came back this week. The Blacklist (Mondays, NBC, Global 10 p.m.) is terrific, mad and overripe in a way that works.

It has something to savour, in particular James Spader's hammily affected work as Raymond "Red" Reddington, a flamboyant villain who, after spending 20 years helping criminals, now devotes himself to helping the FBI. Spader's grandiosity in the role is galvanizing, the absolute heart of the series.

There is also some mysterious backstory business chugging along. Red declared he'd only help the FBI if he got to work with a young officer, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who is oblivious to a previous connection with him. Is he her dad, the viewer wonders? Or is it the fact that Keen's husband Tom, seemingly a gentle schoolteacher, is some kind of spy/assassin? The viewer knows all about him. Keen doesn't. Crazy.

But what takes The Blacklist to the verge of brilliance is the fact that it is ferociously theatrical in tone. It's like a demented Jacobean revenge play week after week – the aloof, never-stops-talking Red is seeking revenge against the world he inhabited; there's the prurient interest in bloody assaults and murder (a recent episode featured a severed head as a trophy); every action is drenched in passion, tragedy and pathos, and Red reveals the world to be, inevitably, brutal and corrupt.

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This toxic recipe – the scripts must read like cunning revisions of John Webster's The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi – is out of fashion in the theatre but recalibrated to glorious effect on The Blacklist.

Some fans of the show object to the Keen character's innocence and naiveté. But, in the context of the theatrical genre to which it belongs, Keen is the necessary representative of virtue. The one true, guiltless figure in this loopy, crooked world.

It's all so crazy, overblown at times but deeply enjoyable.

Also airing tonight

Seed (CITY-TV, 9 p.m.) features legendary Canadian smokeshow Shannon Tweed in a guest role. She plays mom to Rose (Carrie-Lynn Neales). Her arrival means Rose must pretend sperm donor Harry (Adam Korson) is her boyfriend. It's very goofy, not gross, like some other shows I could mention.

Follow me on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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