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TELEVISION REVIEW

Challenged to a dual

Christian Slater is fun as a suburban dad and secret agent in 'My Own Worst Enemy.'

October 13, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

It may feel like Christian Slater has been missing in action for a while, but that's not precisely true. If he hasn't made the splash his early roles in "Pump Up the Volume" and "Heathers" seemed to promise, he's worked pretty steadily, showing up in high-profile films such as "Bobby" and "The Good Shepherd" and doing TV work on "The West Wing" and "Alias."

But now he's back in leading-man territory, playing not one but two of them in NBC's new thriller "My Own Worst Enemy," which premieres tonight at 10. Slater, who in his twenties, anyway, seemed to specialize in creating cult films, is in rare form here. Which is a good thing since the show's success or failure rests solely on his dramatic agility and general appeal. Not that this is anything you should worry about, Christian. Just don't look down.

With a Jason Bourne meets Dr. Jekyll conceit, "My Own Worst Enemy" follows the adventures of Edward Albright (Slater), a ruthless and highly accomplished spy-assassin working for a U.S. shadow agency that we can only hope is mostly on the side of the angels, because it's run by Mavis, who is played by Alfre Woodard. (If it is good to see Slater again, it is even better to see Woodard, having survived her stint on "Desperate Housewives.")

To guarantee his safety, Albright has the perfect cover -- a hypnotically induced dual personality named Henry Spivey (also Slater) who works in a nameless office and lives with his lovely wife Angie (Madchen Amick) and two children in upper-middle-class suburban contentment. Except for all the odd dreams he keeps having, about sleeping with strange women in Paris, and hey, what's this matchbook doing in his pocket anyway?

Yes, yes, after years of success, the Edward/Henry job-sharing program is beginning to wear thin. The action kicks off when Edward awakes during Henry time, which may be maritally complicated -- why are the ruthless killers always better in the sack than the nice guys? -- but is much less disastrous than when Henry later wakes during Edward time, Edward being, you know, a cold-blooded assassin.

There are Eastern European bad guys and lots of shootouts, several explosions and all the soundtrack-driven, quick-cut-camera-amped action we expect these days from our special agent narratives. But what makes the pilot interesting is that we first see this sort of action from Henry's point of view, and you know what? It's pretty horrifying.

Henry's ashen-faced reactions serve first to show us that he is utterly different from the gimlet-eyed Edward, but they also send a rather unsettling message to the audience. After years of Bond and Bourne we too often react to shoot-'em-up scenes with a video-gamer's sang-froid, allowing certain visual cues to dehumanize the bodies even as they fall.

Which isn't to say that "My Own Worst Enemy" is a morality play. Far from it. Without the deadly danger, there would be nothing much for Henry and Edward to talk about. But if Edward is the alpha dog, Henry makes the show. How fun would it be to wake up and realize you know how to rig a car bomb, hold your breath for five minutes and speak a dozen languages? Not as fun as you'd think, apparently.

Still, there is the nagging question of how creator Jason Smilovic is going to turn what could easily have been a two-hour feature film into a television show, but let's assume for the moment he has a plan. Because it would be a shame to waste Slater, here in full go-for-it mode. Every actor dreams of an opportunity like this, to create two distinct characters who happen to share a set of features -- Nicolas Cage and John Travolta in "Face/Off," Jeremy Irons in "Dead Ringers" and, more recently, James Nesbitt in the BBC's excellent "Jekyll."

In the case of "My Own Worst Enemy," the opportunities for danger and humor are obvious -- super spy vs. middle manager; bachelor dog vs. married guy. But Slater has an even more difficult task. Although his characters are different, they are also the same, opposing forces of a single psyche. An exploration of the emotional and psychological diversity that one human brain, and heart, can accumulate and contain during a lifetime is a high calling for a show that also plans to blow things up on a regular basis. But Slater, with a face full of Jack Nicholson-like mischief (not to mention the eyebrows) seems well up to the task.

Here's hoping the story lines are as well.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'My Own Worst Enemy'

Where: NBC

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

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