Before getting into Christian Slater’s new TV show, I offer this note: NBC’s Chuck, currently airing on Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET, has experienced a major creative resurgence in its second season after getting off to a rocky start in Season One. However, that resurgence hasn’t been reflected in the ratings, despite the best efforts of NBC’s marketing team and the vigorous support of TV critics. I mention this in my review of My Own Worst Enemy because both shows are essentially high-concept Alias knock-offs about ordinary men leading a double life in the spy game and Chuck would be a devastating parody of Slater’s show had it not be called into existence first. So if you take anything away from the following review, it’s this: Give Chuck another shot.
With that out of the way, let’s delve into the stupefying premise of My Own Worst Enemy. Slater stars as Edward Albright, a generic superspy who can do all the things expected of generic superspies: Assassinate Russian mobsters from long range, frustrate his boss (Alfie Woodard) with his off-the-playbook methods, fix himself a stiff drink, and make love to sexy double agents. Slater also stars as Henry Spivey, a dull-witted family man with a wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs. But here’s the twist: Edward and Henry are the same guy! “Whaaaaaaaaa?,” you ask? It would seem that through the magic of computer technology, Edward/Henry are a split personality, controlled by Edward’s handlers. So the powers-that-be (CIA? FBI? SD-6? Not sure who’s in charge yet) can call on Edward to snuff out a KGB agent in Paris while having Henry wake up believe that he was on a business trip in Akron.
The amount of money and energy invested in this split-personality scheme is pretty staggering on the face of it: The technology just to turn off and on the fields in Edward/Henry’s brain requires a billion-dollar mainframe, on top of whatever was spent tinkering with his head in the first place. The computer has to be manned by all times by a technician and overseen by Edward/Henry’s supervisors, who have to keep two very different narratives straight at all times. Then the secret must be kept by Henry’s co-workers at his boring day job—or at least Henry’s work buddy Tom, who goes by the name Raymond when he’s in spy mode. Granted, there’s some suggestion that other agents besides Edward are in the program, too, so not all of those resources are wasted on one man. But the question lingers: Why?
Hopefully, future episodes will clarify the purpose of splitting a perfectly good agent into two, but for now, it makes no sense. Edward seems like a highly capable agent who doesn’t need an everyday alter-ego to obscure his identity or go into hiding. And why does Edward know about Henry but Henry not know about Edward? As it stands, if Henry got caught in a sticky situation when somebody mistook him for Edward, he wouldn’t have the tools to defend himself. It hurts the brain to think too long about how My Own Worst Enemy’s basic premise doesn’t add up, even in a television universe that includes a show where the government’s biggest secrets are downloaded into a guy’s head. So let’s consider the show by its merits.
There’s some fun to be had—not a lot of fun, but some—in the moments when the computerized split-personality device goes on the fritz and Edward or Henry wakes up in the other one’s world. In the first episode, for example, Edward becomes Henry at an inopportune moment and winds up facing a battery of Russian henchmen without the slightest idea where he is, who they are, and how to get out of the situation. Then later, Edward pretends to be Henry and winds up spicing up poor Henry’s milquetoast sex life considerably. At times, the show is a little like Face/Off after John Travolta and Nicholas Cage have swapped identities, and the dizzying identity mix-ups can be pretty amusing when they’re not utterly baffling.
But at bottom, My Own Worst Enemy isn’t a comedy and that may be its biggest problem. Played straight, it’s a slick, been-there-done-that spy show built around a gimmick that frustrates and confuses more than it entertains. The creators would do well to play the premise for laughs, but then again, the network already has one Chuck.
• From the Directory Of Nefarious Russian TV Names comes this week’s bad guy: Uzi Kafelnikov. (The first name is a weapon, the second the surname of a famous tennis player.)
• I have a lot of respect for Alfre Woodard’s abilities, but when was the last time she starred in something good? I’d have to go all the way back to Passion Fish in 1992.
• “I don’t like to sleep. Not when I’m awake.” There’s a Zen mind-clearer for you.
• Edward won the Congressional Medal Of Honor. How incognito could he be?