Well, while I was in Iraq, technology leapfrogged me again. I tried using Hulu.com while I was over there, but it won’t respond to IP addresses outside the U.S., so I gave up on it. But recently I’ve been using it to catch up on shows I like, and today I used it for what I suspect will be the TV-viewing pattern of my near future — watching new shows even though I don’t have a TV.
I had been watching shows a season at a time on DVD. This was fine — advantageous, in fact, since it meant I watched everything without commercials and got to see whole seasons straight through. But it also meant that I was far, far behind the critical wavefront. I had to wait until just a couple of months ago to see the final season of The Wire, and so last spring’s flurry of eulogies for “the best show on television” didn’t mean that much to me. And my own reviews tend, for better and for worse, to have the detachment of history rather than the immediacy of reportage.
Well, here it is only Tuesday, and I find myself able to review My Own Worst Enemy, which debuted Monday. So bully for the new tech — it puts me a mere twelve hours behind the 50-year-old tech!
The best thing that can be said for My Own Worst Enemy is that it’s the kind of middling show that television thrives on. It doesn’t make you sit up and pay attention, it doesn’t thrill you down to your socks, it doesn’t raise gooseflesh… but it doesn’t make you change the channel, either. Christian Slater plays ordinary family man Henry who has another life (secret even from himself, thanks to advanced brain engineering) as Edward, a cold, vicious secret agent — a premise that feels too familiar, assembled from bits and pieces of Fight Club, True Lies, and The Bourne Identity. But maybe the reason filmmakers keep returning to the idea of secret lives is that it’s such fertile territory, allowing us to at least pretend we might have some private self, a space unknown to others. And this show drops hints that it might have something up its sleeve when Edward’s boss (Alfre Woodard, so far not given much to do) says that Edward is different from the other duo-brain agents because “he has secrets.”
Of course, if she knows that, it’s hard to explain why she takes Henry to Edward’s apartment and leaves him there while she tries to figure out what to do with him. Surely if I were the supervisor of an experimental project to create two completely separate personalities in one brain, and one personality discovered the other, I would keep that whole brain tightly under my thumb until I figured out what to do with it. Say, in a cozy detention cell. But not Alfre Woodard. She comes from the Bond villain school of prisoner security, I guess.
There are other little logic gaps that kept me from completely enjoying this — for example, although it makes sense that Edward can send Henry mail, it’s never explained how Henry knows, at the end of the episode, where to send messages to Edward. (I know what you’re thinking, but his memory of Edward’s apartment was erased halfway through the episode.) Well, maybe that will be explained later.
The one thing that had BETTER be explained later — or the whole show’s a waste — is why you would bother going to all this trouble just to create cover identities for spies. After all, it’s going to cause more problems than it could possibly solve — a personality unaware of its double life will be unable to lie to smooth over little mistakes in the cover story. And there are always little mistakes, aren’t there?
Possible scenarios? This is just a test case for other, more ambitious projects, like sleeper assassins. They want agents to be able to resist torture. (That actually comes up twice in the pilot.) Split-personality agents could be taught different skills for different missions. Or maybe Halliburton got the no-bid, cost-plus contract to develop this technology before anyone realized how pointless it was. I’m sure this will be explored: after all, in his final message to Edward, Henry says, “I’ve got more than a few questions — Why? being the big one.” Edward raises his eyebrows thoughtfully and takes a drag on his cigarette.
The danger for this show, I think, is that there’s not very much going on. The plot proceeds linearly, and it’s compelling enough for a feature film. But TV audiences are now used to spy shows like this throwing conspiracy after conspiracy and twist after twist at us, even in the pilot. Here, for example, is the Wikipedia synopsis of the first episode of Alias:
Sydney Bristow is a young university student living an uneventful life in Los Angeles. She is recruited to work for SD-6, allegedly a secret branch of CIA. After some time she falls in love with Daniel Hecht, a promising pediatric cardiologist, and makes the fatal mistake of telling him about her secret identity. When the SD-6 finds out, they murder him to protect the secrecy of her identity.
Sydney, devastated by this loss, takes several months off from work to recuperate and focus on school. Her partner, Marcus Dixon is sent to check up on her, and urge her back to work. She tells him that she is not ready yet, even though it is long past when she was supposed to return to work. In a sudden series of events, an attempt is made on Sydney’s life, only to be stopped (with ruthless efficiency) by Jack Bristow. He reveals that SD-6 is not a CIA division, but in fact a branch of a bigger illegal organization known as the Alliance of Twelve, which seeks to make profits from stolen intelligence and weapons. The “CIA black-ops” is the cover given to most of their employees, only a select few (Jack included) know of the organization’s true agenda; the rest are merely pawns whose patriotism is exploited. Sydney is sickened to learn that her father has lied to her for years, and that he is a traitor who was complicit in letting his daughter become a pawn to his colleagues.
Realizing that Sloane no longer trusts her, Sydney travels to Taipei and retrieves one of Rambaldi’s artifacts in order to win his trust. After confronting Sloane, giving him the artifact, and promising to return to work the following week, she regains Sloane’s trust. She visits the real CIA where she meets Michael Vaughn and Eric Weiss. She prepares a written statement telling them everything she knows about SD-6. She requests to become a double agent for the CIA and put an end to Sloane and SD-6. Later, the episode’s final scene shows Sydney visiting Danny’s grave. There, Jack reveals to Sydney that he is not a traitor, he is working for the CIA, infiltrating SD-6 as a double agent, and that the CIA is accepting her to do the same.
All that, in 69 minutes. You could spend, oh, five seasons or so untangling all that. (Who the frak is Rambaldi?) The risk My Own Worst Enemy runs is becoming a one-question show — and you can only delay answering a single question for so long before the audience becomes impatient. We’ll see if they can add layers in the next few weeks.