Thursday, October 16, 2008

True Recall Or Total Lies

(This review was delayed by that pesky Canadian election, which managed to irritate the crap out of me because of the way the candidate I supported lost. Someday maybe I'll tell you about it.)

When I first heard of the concept for My Own Worst Enemy my immediate thought was that it sounded like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie True Lies. In that movie Arnold plays a married computer consultant with a wife and kid and a best friend (played by Tom Arnold) who in reality is a super-spy who goes around romancing Tia Carrere. As publicity for the show increased and we found out more about the premise we learned that the lead character had two very distinct personalities that didn't know about each other. The concept at least started to seem more innovative. Having seen the first episode I am led to a slightly (but only slightly) less interesting conclusion, namely that My Own Worst Enemy is like a mash-up of True Lies with another Schwarzenegger movie, Total Recall, in which he plays a man who believes himself to be one thing only to discover that who he thought he was has been artificially imposed over his real personality (of course that could also be untrue and his adventures are part of a futuristic computer vacation program).

The first time we encounter Edward Albright is on a video recording in which he warns someone to call his wife and tell her that he can't make the kids' soccer game. It's the one way he can save his own life. Immediately we are taken forty-eight hours into the past. The location is Paris and Edward is talking to someone we can't see before he meets with a young woman. He very quickly seduces her and after they have sex the talk turns to someone named Uzi Kafelnikov who, as Edward puts it, has taken something that doesn't belong to him. As the woman goes to the bathroom, we see her loading a silenced pistol. As she goes into the bedroom she fires into a man shaped bump on the bed. She thinks it's Edward but that's the last thought she has as Edward puts a bullet through her brain. Back in Los Angeles Edward meets with a woman named Mavis. Mavis is Edward's boss and she's not happy that he killed the woman in Paris – he was supposed to interrogate her and get information about Uzi. As he leaves Edward comments on the nice suit that he's wearing and mentions that "he buys off the rack," speaking in the third person. After his meeting with Mavis Edward goes to meet with a "tech geek" who gives him detailed memories about a business trip to Akron and puts Edward "to sleep."

The next thing we see is Edward getting out of an elevator. He looks subtly different and answers to the name of Henry Spivey. Henry is a senior consultant for a company called A.J. Sun which consults in the financial and investment areas. Henry is happily married, has two kids, a dog and a minivan. He is also dreading a meeting with the company psychiatrist, something that he talks about with his friend Tom. Henry has had a strange dream, which in itself is unusual because Henry doesn't dream. In his dream he was in a hotel in Paris with a woman who called him Edward. Most puzzling of all is that he has a matchbook from the hotel that he was at in his dream, the Hotel Lyonnais in Paris...and Henry's never been to Paris.

After that things start coming apart. As Henry is reading a book, Edward suddenly emerges. Worse, Henry emerges as Edward is on a mission in Russia to do surveillance on, and possibly assassinate Uzi. Henry fires the sniper rifle that Edward is equipped with, giving away his position. Uzi's men shoot Henry, although fortunately Edward was wearing a bullet-proof vest, and Uzi proceeds to torture Henry to get information (though of course he thinks he's torturing Edward – to say this gets confusing is an understatement). Suddenly a rescue is staged by an agent in a mask who gets Henry out of the building and also manages to grab the briefcase that Uzi had taken. Safely away from Uzi and his men the hooded agent reveals himself to be Henry's friend from A.J. Sun, Tom. Except Tom insists that his name is Raymond!

Needless to say Henry is confused (more so than we are but then we're seeing a lot more than he is). Raymond takes Henry to meet with Mavis who explains things in great detail to him. Henry has only existed for 19 years while Edward is the real personality, someone who submitted to the technique to create an alternate personality of his own free will. The problem is that something is breaking down the barriers. Taking Henry to Edward's living quarters, Mavis tells him they'll get to the bottom of things. Exploring, Henry discovers not only Edward's large supply of champagne (a bottle of which he proceeds to drink) but also a hidden room containing Edward's personal effects including press clippings from when he was a high school football star, his parent's obituary, and his Medal of Honor. He also finds Edward's car keys and taking Edward's Camaro drives home, only to have Edward take over part way through the trip. Mavis contacts Edward and tells him that Henry is going to be "erased." Edward decides to take the opportunity to find out what Henry's life is like and arriving at home makes very passionate love to Henry's wife. During the night Henry takes over and finds a message written on his hand telling him not to drive Edward's car again. He also has a very appreciative wife. When Henry rides up to the office in the elevator he asks Tom some questions about tom's personal life and in return Tom asks about his life. Henry mentions that his parents died in a fire, but it was Edward's parents who died in the fire not Henry's, and it wasn't Tom in elevator, it was Raymond. Raymond, Mavis and the computer geek take Henry into a white room where, we're led to believe that either Henry's or Edward's memories were destroyed.

Apparently it was Edward who was erased because we see Henry arriving at home and checking his mail. His wife called to remind him about the soccer game but suddenly he's attacked by Uzi and one of his goons Henry is taped up with duct tape and tortured by Uzi's goon. Henry manages to persuade Uzi that he has a split personality but that he knows how to get where Edward hid the case with the items that Uzi had stolen thanks to a GPS that Edward left in Henry's car. This took them out into the desert. Henry digs a big hole – nearly grave sized in fact – and at the bottom finds a crate with a brief case in it. It's pretty clear that the hole would be Henry's grave but when Uzi makes it clear that his wife and children will also be killed, Henry activates something on the GPS and ducks into the whole. The case explodes killing Uzi and his henchman but leaving Henry alive. The DVD from Edward explained that he had hidden a fake case in the desert and that the GPS has "an interesting" feature. The last scene features Edward, waiting for a meeting with Mavis watching a DVD made by Henry.

In spite of the fact that My Own Worst Enemy boasts a strong cast that includes Alfre Woodard as Mavis, Mike O'Malley as Tom/Raymond, and Madchen Amick as Henry's sexy wife Angie, the truth is that the series rises or falls on Christian Slater's ability to play Henry and Edward. It is crucial for us as an audience to get the sense that while the man is the same there is a distinct difference in the two personalities. Henry and Edward are not multiple personalities in the true sense of the word. Rather they are closer to two sides of the same person both allowed to have equal control. Henry is responsible, monogamous, peaceful and in the end not adventurous. Edward is a rule breaker, promiscuous, violent, and a thoroughgoing risk taker. Most people have both aspects within them but with one or the other having control, usually the responsible one, although those other aspects come out on occasion. Henry and Edward are split artificially, the perfect cover for a spy and assassin but also the perfect way to have the violent rule breaker under control and only available as needed. In a way Edward is a prisoner to be let out only when needed, with Henry as his prison. It's apparently not an accident that Slater's two characters are named Henry and Edward, the same names as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde. What I think is interesting is that it is the "Hyde" side of Henry and Edward that is the original man – the athlete, linguist, and war hero as well as the violent risk taker and rule breaker – while it is the "Jekyll" side – the responsible family man – who is the construct.

There were some nits to pick with the writing of the first episode mostly related to the timeline that has been imposed on Edward and Henry. We're told at the start of the episode that forty-eight hours have past between the events in Paris and Henry watching Edward's DVD. And yet we're also supposed to believe that in those two days Edward/Henry flew from Paris to Los Angeles spent one night at home (as Henry), flew (as Edward) from Los Angeles to Moscow, set up a position where he could observe and possibly assassinate Uzi, been captured (as Henry) and tortured, then rescued by Raymond, flew from Moscow back to Los Angeles, met with Mavis, had sex with Angie (as Edward pretending to be Henry) then (as Henry) been caught by Raymond and Mavis and apparently treated. Oh yes, and set up the equipment to save Henry from Uzi and made the DVD. That time scale is rather difficult to accept as you can imagine. Indeed the whole premise, if looked at from a point of view that demands realism in TV shows is rather difficult to accept. However there is such a thing as willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, while the physics of Edward/Henry's transportation situation (as described) are at Santa Claus or Superman levels – and Edward wears neither a red suit nor a red cape – the idea that a shadowy portion of the intelligence "alphabet soup" might concoct a plan where they deliberately split personalities and store dangerous agents inside ordinary people is a believable enough premise to serve as a jumping off point for a series. If nothing else it feeds into our present fear, distrust, and dislike of intelligence agencies.

Reaction to My Own Worst Enemy has been mixed. Some people have been drawn into it and others have at the very least been disappointed by the show. I fall into the former group. Even though, as the title of this post suggests, I remain unconvinced about the originality of the concept I have to say that I found the execution of the concept to be intriguing enough to get me back on a regular basis for as long as the show hangs around. One thing I will say, as usual, is that the true measure of the show won't be found in the first episode – where the concept is set up – but in how well the writers make use of the dual nature of Edward and Henry in future episodes. You have to hope that every episode doesn't involve Henry popping up to screw up one of Edward's missions, or Edward pulling off some superspy trick to save Henry's life and protect his family from a bad guy who has discovered their secret. If they can avoid that, if they can keep the ideas relatively fresh and relatively innovative this could be an interesting show to follow. One thing's for sure, of the three new series released by NBC so far this fall, it's the best of the lot ... not that that's saying much.

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