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Double Jeopardy: Spying on "My Own Worst Enemy"

When I read Jason Smilovic's original script for My Own Worst Enemy, the NBC action spy series starring Christian Slater which launches tonight, I thought that it showed enormous promise and potential. Sure, I was confused why NBC would schedule two series that both dealt with takes on the spy genre on the same night (Chuck, of course, airs two hours earlier) but I figured that, since they had managed to snag Christian Slater as the lead on a network television series, they had to be doing something right.

And then I saw the premiere episode of My Own Worst Enemy ("Breakdown") a few weeks back and I began to question everything that I had originally thought about the series, especially as the Peacock had secured the showrunning services of John Eisendrath, an Alias veteran who replaced series creator Jason Smilovic at the helm, and done some major recasts and reshooting.

My Own Worst Enemy isn't bad, per se, but it could have been a hell of a lot better and the results on screen are pretty flat. The premise? Christian Slater plays Henry Spivey, a workaday consultant for various companies who juggles his family (including a lovely wife played by Madchen Amick), his job, therapy (in the form of Saffron Burrow's Dr. Norah Skinner), and frequent business trips. Christian Slater also plays Edward Albright, a deadly intelligence operative who clearly has picked up more than a few tips from the James Bond spy playbook. In the series' opening moments, we see Edward bed a beautiful asset and then shoot her in the head minutes later when she tries to kill him.

Henry and Edward are, of course, the same person and in some truly mindblowing technobabble Edward's boss Mavis (Alfre Woodard) explains the experiment that brought them together, as it were. The twist of course is that dashing superspy Edward is the real person; it's frumpy Henry that is the experiment, a divergent personality that the scientists at AJ Sun (an anagram for Janus, the Roman two-headed god of beginnings and endings... and doorways) materialized from his frontal lobe. Edward's life of assassination, intelligence-gathering, and womanizing comprise the truth of his life; Henry's family life is just the window-dressing. But is it a liability? Or Edward's greatest strength? Hmmm.

Given that an integral member of the Alias team is involved, I expected significantly more tension and drama in the opening installment and it's hard not to compare My Own Worst Enemy with the groundbreaking series premiere of Alias, in which Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) learns some terrible secrets about the company she's working for, has her fiancee killed, and nearly dies herself in completing a mission to ensure her continued survival working for an evil organization that pretends to be a black ops division of the CIA. And, oh, reconnects with her chilly, estranged father (Victor Garber), who's tied up in the whole mess she's uncovered.

Instead, we don't really see any major stakes presented for Henry/Edward. Yes, Henry "wakes" up during a critical mission and winds up in the line of fire and is nearly killed by their target, a terrorist named Uzi (yes, seriously) who has stolen something called Fainberg's Marbles, a Rambaldi-like device if I ever heard one. Yes, Henry is later attacked in his home and kidnapped by Uzi in order to locate the Marbles but at no point do we really feel like the atmosphere is fraught with peril. We're told that Uzi will kill Henry's family if he doesn't comply, but as none of them are given any more depth or characterization than mere ciphers, it's hard to be on the edge of your seat over this threat. Where is the drama, the intrigue, the pulse-pounding tension of, say, the Bourne films... or the aforementioned Alias?

There's a messiness to My Own Worst Enemy that could have been pushed aside had your suspension of disbelief been a little more warranted. Mavis gives the order to erase Henry altogether but then only erases Henry's knowledge of Edward and the few previous days. (Wouldn't it have raised the stakes had they actually wanted to go through with it, only to have Edward buck?) The facility doesn't search through Edward's pockets before waking Henry up (they don't even apparently change his clothes, though the two men would have vastly different wardrobes), allowing Henry to discover a book of matches from a Parisian hotel that he had never been to. In fact, security is apparently so lax at AJ Sun that Mavis takes Henry to Edward's sleek apartment and leaves him there with full phone access (he calls his wife but doesn't mention any of the madness that's going on) and the ability to leave at any time (he takes Edward's car for a spin rather than running far, far away). Either AJ Sun is a completely trusting intelligence agency or these are singlehandedly the very worst spies in the business.

Additionally, Slater doesn't live up to my expectations in a dual role that doesn't really prescribe much difference between Edward and Henry. I was expecting a more fluid and subtle performance in which Slater deftly slips back and forth between the two halves of his psyche and allows us to see those differences in his mannerisms, behavior, speech patterns, and body language. (For a master course on how to do this, take a look at James Nesbitt in BBC's Jekyll.)

Smilovic's original script made better use of the subtle differences between the two men and played up Henry's puzzle-solving abilities, which were not programmed by AJ Sun and seem to have developed on their own. More weight could have been given to this extremely intriguing development but the premiere episode glosses over this to instead focus on Edward's now-familiar spy abilities. The original script also contained a pretty shocking ending that is nowhere to be found here (I won't reveal it in case NBC decides to later use this storyline) and jettisons an rather interesting subplot involving Edward and Norah.

Ultimately, My Own Worst Enemy isn't original or compelling. It feels slightly outdated and outmatched by the hyperkinetic brawn and brains of Jason Bourne and one can't help but shake the feeling that--other than the double identity conceit--that we've seen this all done better before. And one doesn't need any marbles--figurative or literal--to see that My Own Worst Enemy is depressingly underwhelming.

My Own Worst Enemy premieres tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Anonymous said…
I agree completely about the sloppy writing. It drove me crazy how they left "Henry" alone in Evan's apartment with access to both a phone and a car. That easily could have compromised their entire operation. And Slater's performance was just okay. I expected more from him and from the show overall.
Anonymous said…
Uzi lost his "marbles?" Is that really the best storyline they could come up with?
Vance said…
Ha, I thought the exact same thing. It wasn't bad per se, but it could have been a LOT better with the premise they had.

Last night definitely seemed sloppy and almost relished in being confusing. Lost is confusing in a good way. This wasn't.
Anonymous said…
Truly mindblowing how bad this was. They seemed to have a decent script and a good cast but completely screwed it up with ridiculous plotting. Sloppy is right.

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