'The Enemy Within': TV Review

Not your own worst 'Enemy,' but headed there.
2/25/2019

Jennifer Carpenter and pilot director Mark Pellington try hard, but NBC's new espionage-fueled drama becomes yet another 'Blacklist' knockoff.

Has Xerox technology evolved to the point at which making a copy of a copy of a copy no longer leaves you with a thoroughly degraded version of the original?

While somebody goes to research at their neighborhood Kinkos, let me assure you that when it comes to the creative process, chasing and rechasing a particular formula — especially when you don't necessarily understand the virtues of the formula — still leads to diminishing qualitative returns.

The new drama The Enemy Within marks NBC's latest fairly unsuccessful attempt to copy whatever NBC executives interpret to be the template that turned The Blacklist into a hit. It isn't the worst in the network's line of dramas featuring generic intelligence operatives forced to team up with morally and ethically compromised partners best kept in containment. But somebody at NBC keeps insisting that what viewers responded to in Blacklist was, well, the "list" and from Blindspot to Blacklist: Redemption to Taken, the network has steadily drained the fun from the premise and The Enemy Within is surely the most dour and joyless entry in this mini-genre.

The Enemy Within — the title calls to mind NBC's My Own Worst Enemy, which the network surely would have relentlessly Xeroxed if only it hadn't failed — also represents the biggest drop in interest between pilot and subsequent episodes that I've experienced for a while, so if you find yourself at least somewhat intrigued by Monday's premiere, be cautious.

Jennifer Carpenter plays Erica Shepherd, a brilliant CIA operative who, in the series' opening scene, is apprehended on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Erica is charged with espionage after allegedly being responsible for the deaths of four intelligence agents whose identity she provided to a vicious Russian terrorist. This is enough to make Erica one of the worst domestic criminals in American history and perhaps the country's most hated woman. Three years later, Erica is in a super-max prison in Colorado when her Russian contact orchestrates a series of attacks on U.S. soil and FBI Agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) is forced to seek her help. This is awkward for Will because not only was he the agent who led the team that brought Erica in, but he was also married to one of the agents whose deaths Erica was responsible for. It's a small world!

It's also a dull world. Agent Keaton operates a squad played by a reasonable assortment of actors who, through the first and third episodes sent to critics, mostly dwell in the background. The members of the team are played by Raza Jaffrey, Kelli Garner, Noah Mills and Cassandra Freeman, and there's nothing of note that I could tell you about any of their characters, no matter how much I've liked Garner and Jaffrey, in particular, in the past.

Chestnut isn't that much more interesting. The relentlessness with which Hollywood has attempted to push Chestnut as a movie and TV star, without ever for a single second grasping what has made him so periodically charming as an actor, is one of the minor bafflements of our time. Watch him in Boyz n the Hood or The Best Man and you see his ample charisma at work. Watch him in V or Rosewood or Enemy Within and you'd be correct to wonder why anybody would think "ultra-intense procedural lead" was the niche assigned to him. The writing that wants us to buy that Will and Erica would ever work together despite their history is bad enough, and Chestnut can't begin to add tortured depth to the scenario. It's this baffling thing where NBC gets that Blacklist is, at its structural heart, a two-handed game of cat-and-mouse and yet none of these imitators have been constructed as a matchup of equals.

For the purposes of the pilot, even stripped of the artful swearing that made her Dexter performance so special, Carpenter is exerting maximum effort to carry the show on her own. She makes Erica seem cool, calculating, damaged and dangerous, and then Carpenter has to watch as Erica's diabolical crime is mitigated and over-explained to the point at which by the third episode, I wasn't sure why Erica had to be in containment, why she had to be involved in the show at all and what Carpenter was even supposed to be playing. Maybe the mitigating circumstances will prove to be misdirection, but the third episode was pretty close to a generic espionage procedural and it sure feels like that's where Enemy Within is heading, which I'm afraid lines up more with creator Ken Woodruff's The Mentalist background than his time on Gotham. Carpenter would have made a spectacular Gotham villain, incidentally.

Beyond Carpenter, the standout in the Enemy Within pilot is director Mark Pellington, who brings a lot of the same paranoia and breathlessness that drove Arlington Road nearly 20 years ago. Pellington and Emmy-winning cinematographer James Hawkinson give the pilot a scary intimacy and immediacy, whether it's the unflinching close-ups on Carpenter that serve as a gateway for the character's impeccable observation or the GoPro-style climactic series of car stunts. This isn't one of those Justin Lin specials where the distance between the pilot and subsequent episodes stems from a gap in budget or production time. It's just that Pellington and Hawkinson have been allowed to do something distinctive in the pilot and director Richard Lewis and DP Frank DeMarco, both amply capable, have not. The third episode of Enemy Within looks like any other network procedural and, coupled with a by-the-numbers plot — including the Americans-fueled in-joke of Keidrich Sellati as a high school athlete whose parents may or may not be foreign agents — sapped whatever already tempered enthusiasm I still had after the pilot.

I think there are kernels of a good show in the pilot for The Enemy Within, especially Carpenter and a hook about the staggering number of foreign spies currently operating in the U.S. Taking those elements and just running them through the least interesting Blacklist filter imaginable may bring the show a tepid NBC following. It won't keep me watching.

Cast: Jennifer Carpenter, Morris Chestnut, Raza Jaffrey, Cassandra Freeman, Kelli Garner, Noah Mills
Creator: Ken Woodruff
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)