Given NBC's recent track record -- was the world really clamoring for a new "Knight Rider," inferior even to the low standards set by the original? -- you'll understand my shock that the new Christian Slater drama, "My Own Worst Enemy," actually turns out to be an entertaining, coherent drama.
Monday's well-constructed pilot episode establishes the show's Jekyll & Hyde plot: Slater stars in the dual roles of Henry and Edward.
Henry is a sedate family man with a loving wife (Madchen Amick) and two children. Edward is an operative for a secret organization who's accustomed to dodging danger in hot spots all around the world.
Why do these two personalities coexist in one man? Here's the explanation Edward's boss, Mavis (Alfre Woodard), gives Henry when that personality emerges in the midst of one of Edward's missions: "We manifested a divergent identity dormant in a sealed-off portion of the medial temporal lobe, creating a split personality."
It's a knotty bit of technobabble, but it sounds more reasonable than a lot of geek-speak viewers hear on shows of this sort. The pilot also reveals that Edward was the original personality, details how and when Henry was created and hints at why.
Created by Jason Smilovic ("Kidnapped," "Karen Sisco"), "My Own Worst Enemy" sets up what could be an overly complicated premise and miraculously makes it all seem perfectly acceptable and clear by the end of the first hour. That's a rare feat in TV. Often a pilot episode clumsily strains to unload as much exposition as possible. "My Own Worst Enemy" never breaks a sweat.
Credit Slater's natural cool for much of the show's success. At times I wasn't sure if Slater does enough to differentiate between Edward and Henry, but subtlety might play better in the long run. It also builds suspense: Sometimes it's not clear at first which personality has manifested.
Dialogue in Smilovic's script does give viewers some hints about whom they're watching. Henry is less prone to sarcastic asides than Edward, who says after a mission in Paris, "God created the most beautiful place on Earth. Then he put the French there to even things out."
It's too early to tell if "Enemy" will hold up week after week. The premise might have been better suited to a one-shot movie, but Smilovic makes a convincing case for aspects of the dual characters that can be explored for weeks and years to come.
"They are both vying for supremacy within the same body," he said at an NBC news conference in July. "They do come to cross-purposes, and that's where the drama is."
Operative Edward knows about family man Henry as the series begins, but Henry doesn't know about Edward until the barriers between the two personalities begin to break down. Smilovic said the show will explore why Mavis keeps Edward in play even though his dual-personality barrier becomes defective.
If it's successful, Joss Whedon's upcoming series "Dollhouse" might find that "My Own Worst Enemy" is its own worst enemy. "Dollhouse" has a similar premise about an operative whose memory is wiped clean after each mission -- until she begins remembering.
"I think that the concept itself is not very important," Smilovic said. "It's the execution of the concept that really matters, and I think we're going to all do it very differently."