'My Own Worst Enemy': Double Agent, Redefined

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. . . . Slater? Christian Slater is such a big deal that he stars as not one, but two characters. Well, technically, he plays a man with split personalities -- mild-mannered family man and a killer secret agent. Video by Video by NBC
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 13, 2008

Even as pundits prophesy that the Cold War might be not over but merely chilling out, so the spy thriller has staged another infiltration at the local multiplex and the even more local TV set.

James Bond has been given a fifth or sixth life in the movies, and the similarly initialed Jason Bourne -- whose story was already told in a 1988 TV movie with Richard Chamberlain -- was resurrected in the person of Matt Damon for the high-powered movie trilogy.

Now the spy population increases by one -- or maybe two -- in NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy," a contrived espionage adventure about a 21st-century Walter Mitty whose dreams of an exotic alter ego scampering through hot spots aren't dreams at all, but rather the result of a biologically engineered double identity. Or as he poetically puts it in the show's one wee whimsical moment, "Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm a split personality and so am I."

"He" is either Henry Spivey, a mild-mannered bureaucrat with a wife (Madchen Amick), two kids and a house in the burbs, or Edward Albright, a dashing derring-doer who, as the premiere begins, runs around Paris dodging bullets, bedding a beauty and then dodging the bedded beauty's bullets -- much as Mike Myers's Austin Powers eluded a feline "fembot" in one of his hilarious capers.

(We are mistreated to that old bit, in fact, wherein the gorgeous spy slinks into the bedroom and fires a gunful of bullets into what appears to be the sleeping body of the target, only to discover that the rascally scamp had plumped up some pillows, covered them with a blanket to look like a body, then hid behind a door to watch the evil action. Did someone in the second balcony shout "Lame!"?).

"My Own Worst Enemy's" producers and writers apparently imagined they could recycle the cliches just because they have a new central gimmick to support them. Edward might be riding in an elevator after just having completed some whiz-bang bit of sleuthery when suddenly the screen gets blurry, Edward's eyeballs wobble and bobble, his world goes poof and -- zip! -- he comes out of a trance thinking that he's Henry and that the sleuthing stuff was all an exciting dream.

After that happens three or four times, it becomes surprisingly tedious, especially since it's reminiscent of the double life that Arnold Schwarzenegger led in the movie "True Lies," and the audience is bound to be craving explanations. VoilĂ  -- the beautiful Alfre Woodard as Edward's hard-as-nails boss -- a character very similar to the hard-as-nails boss who tried to bully Daniel Craig as James Bond in "Casino Royale" -- spills a hill of beans meant to half-explain the rigmarole.

Woodard doesn't mention the curious literary clue that Henry and Edward happen also to be the first names of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It can't be a coincidence, but then it doesn't really have a great deal of significance either, since the Mr. Hyde phase isn't really evil, just naughty.

So many scenes and characters are similar to those from other films and TV shows that very soon, Edward and Henry aren't the only ones suffering deja vu. "My Own Worst Enemy" can be recommended only to people who can imagine themselves saying, "I'm in the mood for a mediocre version of a fairly good spy movie."

Slater, whose appearance as the star of a network series suggests his movie career has pretty much petered out, looks middle-aged and puffy as the two-headed agent. Woodard is wasted in such a familiar, predictable role. Tom Grady seems understandably confused as a friend to both sides of the split personality -- but to Henry, he's always saying, "Don't call me Tom," and to Edward, he's always saying, "Don't call me Raymond." Or is it the other way around? In its favor, the physical trappings of the production are sparkling and lush, including widescreen establishing shots of Paris and other locations, and a fleet of fabulous automobiles assembled for the car chases -- Audis dominate, but such hot items as a special Chevy Camaro also tear up the show's silvery streets. An hour of just watching cars race around a faux France would probably be more engaging than "Worst Enemy's" messy melange of bits and pieces from 50 or 60 spy stories already told.

The show is the TV series equivalent of Frankenstein's monster, built from scraps of various cadavers and plodding along at a logy and poky pace. "My Own Worst Enemy" ends up seeming like a pale digital copy even of itself.

My Own Worst Enemy (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4.

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