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September 19, 2008

First look: 'My Own Worst Enemy'

Christian_slater "It's good," NBC employees are saying. "No, really. I was surprised. It's really good."

"My Own Worst Enemy" is NBC's most crucial fall show. It's considered the network's most likely breakout series and has been given NBC's strongest time slot, right after "Heroes."

Yet the "Enemy" buzz has been in the dumpster since July, when the network showed TV critics generic-looking clips at press tour and producers struggled to explain its tricky concept. Swapping out the showrunner sent up another signal flare -- "Enemy" is in trouble. The Christian Slater action drama became the poster child for poststrike production mayhem and NBC's own behind-the-scenes executive drama.

Screener copies are sent to critics today. This is a first look.

Unlike last year's"Bionic Woman," which seemed to catalog the show's difficult development in every episode, the production turmoil that built "My Own Worst Enemy" is not evident in the pilot.

The episode is a snappily written, fast-paced thriller that shows Slater can be a -- and I'm really trying to avoid using the word "surprisingly" here -- likable TV star. He plays Edward/Henry, an assassin whose personality has been split by the government agency that employs him. When active, he's a superspy. When switched off, he's a suburban dad.

The story tracks what happens when domesticated manager consultant Henry suddenly wakes up while, for example, attempting an assassination in Moscow. Or salacious psychopath Edward awakes in bed with Henry's unsuspecting wife. If all this sounds like it could be fun, well, that's what the promos haven't shown you and the pilot surprisingly (damn) does.

The episode is smartly directed by David Semel (who shot the first episodes of NBC's "Heroes," "Life" and A&E's "The Cleaner"), who adds some cool moments here -- Henry, shell-shocked, during his "first" gunbattle, then, later, drunkenly exploring his newly discovered alter-ego's apartment.

It's also nice to see NBC breaking open the piggy bank. The production values feel like the highest since the "Heroes" pilot. You don't get the sense that everything was shot on greenscreen and backlot. The editing is terrific, taking some notes from the "Bourne" movies.

The whole convoluted split-personality setup, the one critics had such a problem with in July, still stretches credulity to the breaking point. And then keeps on truckin. I mean, yeah, it's ridiculous. Even accepting the science, the massive effort it takes for an organization to have these double-identity assassins running around seems like a bucket of trouble for little gain. Wouldn't it be easier to just give Edward a condo in Simi Valley and tell him to keep a low profile than deceiving friends, family and even himself with an alternate personality?

You also have little sense of what Slater's job is, exactly, and only a "he's the bad guy" impression of the pilot episode's villain. The opening scene is a bit spy-movie cliche, and there's a couple bumps near the rushed-feeling conclusion where you have "wait, what's going on?" moments.

Yet the whole affair just keeps skipping along (again, good editing), with Slater's gravely, self-effacing wit helping ease you over some rough spots. I could be wrong here. This could be low expectations at work. But I think viewers are going to enjoy this pilot in general and Slater in particular.

The other critic concern is that there's no clear follow-up narrative for a series. What does Henry do every week after discovering Edward?

The pilot doesn't offer many clues. And some NBC insiders are asking this same question as the second episode is not yet finished. One note of advice: stay true to the title. The ending hints that Edward could become a helpful benefactor passing notes to Henry. But its best to keep him crude, threatening and amoral. Don't worry about whether he's likable. Worry about whether he's interesting. Let him commit a murder that Henry has to clean up. Let him do drugs and give Henry the hangover.

Again, I have no sense how this series will progress. But viewers who watch the premiere will likely give the show a second shot to find out.


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