There are several things to recommend about NBC’s new series My Own Worst Enemy: Christian Slater proves himself a very capable TV star, the supporting cast is solid, the pace is quick and the visuals high-quality.
It’s also saddled with what feels like the most needlessly overcomplicated back story to come along since Sydney Bristow was working for SD-6. Its convolution overwhelms whatever’s good about it, leaving an impression at the the end of the first episode that can be summed up as: Wait, what?
[NOTE: This review will be a little more spoiler-ish than usual, so proceed with caution.]
The basic premise, as laid out in hundreds of NBC promos over the past couple months, isn’t especially difficult to grasp: Slater plays both Henry Spivey, a regular-guy management consultant with a wife and two kids, and Edward Albright, a highly trained government operative who speaks 13 languages and is a very, very good shot.
They share the same body. Edward knows about Henry’s existence, but Henry is not aware of Edward, thanks to a memory-manipulating program that basically serves as a firewall between the two personalities. OK — so far, so good; it’s sort of like True Lies, with that one added wrinkle that the spy’s everyday persona is unaware of his own moonlighting.
But, of course, the wall between Edward and Henry starts to break down, and all heck breaks loose. Something has shorted out in Edward/Henry’s head, and therefore the transitions between the two men start coming at the most inopportune times, like when Edward is in Moscow waiting to take out a target.
The expected complications ensue, but also some unexpected ones. The agent who pulls Henry out of the Moscow pickle (Mike O’Malley) is someone he knows as his co-worker Tom, but who says his real name is Raymond. Tom/Raymond takes him to Mavis (an authoritative Alfre Woodard), who explains to Henry that the dual personalities were a result of having — and I’m quoting directly here — "manifested a divergent identity that was dormant in a sealed-off portion of your medial-temporal lobe."
Raymond, however, seems to be living his double life without the aid of brain implants (or whatever it is in Edward’s head — it’s never entirely clear). Mavis then explains to Henry that the "divergent identity" is him — Edward volunteered to have his medial-temporal lobe monkeyed with 19 years ago, and thus was Henry Spivey, suburbanite, born.
The big question here — and at least Henry has the sense to ask it — is, Why? Why would some super-secret government program mess around with an agent’s head rather than just have him stick to a plausible cover story? Why would said agent’s handler/superior casually drop a line like "Edward’s different from the others — he has secrets" and not seem to care what those secrets are? Why would Edward want the alternate identity in the first place?
Also, why has it taken until now for a bad guy to track Henry/Edward to his suburban home? And does Henry’s therapist (Saffron Burrows) also know about Edward? You get the idea.
The baroque back story really does get in the way of what’s some very solid work by Slater. There’s no real physical cue to indicate which character he’s playing, a la James Nesbitt in the fine BBC miniseries Jekyll, but he does a good job of conveying both Edward’s ruthlessness and Henry’s bewilderment with subtle changes to his eyes and voice. Woodard is her usual strong self, and comedian O’Malley makes for a surprisingly good heavy as Tom/Raymond. (Madchen Amick, as Henry’s wife, has little to do in the first episode, but presumably she’ll play a larger role down the line.)
My Own Worst Enemy is also one of the best-looking new shows of the season. Crisply directed by Heroes veteran David Semel, the show makes good use of L.A. locations, with the city both playing itself and standing in for various global locales.
It may be early enough for the show to extract itself from the tangled web it’s woven without too much difficulty. Doing so would be a good thing for both the show and viewers. We’re all for not dumbing down television around here, but that doesn’t mean any show should be too complicated for its own good.
My Own Worst Enemy premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday, Oct. 13.