Review: The Enemy Within 1×1 (US: NBC)

The Blacklist without the fun

The Enemy Within
The Enemy Within -- "Pilot" Episode -- Pictured: (l-r) Morris Chestnut as Will Keaton, John Finn as Richard Bregman, Jennifer Carpenter as Erica Shepherd -- (Photo by: Will Hart/NBC)

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

NBC may now be the number one US network again, but it’s not got there through originality. To be honest, it tried originality 10 years ago with the likes of My Own Worst Enemy and it took the network about five years to climb out from bottom place in the ratings as a result, so maybe that’s a good thing.

All the same, it does mean we get an awful lot of the same stuff reheated, once a show has proven to be popular. Like shows set in Chicago? Then have Chicago PD, Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago Justice. Like Law & Order? Then have Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: CI, too.

The Blacklist has proven to be one of the network’s more enduring shows. However, after five years, its twinkle is dimming and a spin-off, The Blacklist: Redemption, didn’t exactly pan out well.

So how about a sex-swapped version that’s a bit duller? Cue The Enemy Within.

The Enemy Within

The Enemy Within

Taking over from James Spader in the role of “evil criminal who helps the authorities to catch other evil criminals for some reason” is the potentially almost as fascinating Jennifer Carpenter. Best known as the titular sister’s foul-mouthed cop sister in Dexter but who was also a whole lot of fun in Limitless, Carpenter’s a firebrand who can set the screen alight – when she’s allowed to.

Here she plays the ‘most notorious traitor in US history’, Erica Shepherd, a brilliant codebreaker and former CIA deputy director of operations, who was convicted of treason for working with terrorist Mikhail Vassily Tal. Three years after she’s arrested by top FBI counterintelligence agent Morris Chestnut (Rosewood, Legends, V, Nurse Jackie), Tal is back and setting off explosives around the US, so Chestnut’s boss suggests he talk to Carpenter, who’s held Spader-style in a box of a prison. Reluctantly – because she was responsible for his fiancée’s death – Chestnut capitulates and Carpenter is soon bringing her valuable insight to bear to try to work out what Tal is up to.

And if she can escape from custody using her big brain at the same time, that would be a bonus…

The Enemy Within

No villainess

Sex swapping characters is always interesting since it reveals the boundaries society places on storytelling. Here, the big reveal about Carpenter’s character is that she was actually blackmailed into working with Tal, as he had threatened the life of Carpenter’s daughter. She never revealed this fact so as not to place an undue burden on her daughter. Now she genuinely does want to work with Chestnut so that she can redeem herself.

In other words, unlike the genuinely criminal Spader who loves his daughter (or is she?) and wants to help her but is still partial to doing the occasional evil thing, here the villainess isn’t actually evil in any way and is just being a protective mother. Women can’t actually be vilainesses and must instead be loving mothers, or else we judge them far more harshly than we do men.

But that’s quite dull, isn’t it? Carpenter is allowed an almost Hannibal Lecter like quality at first when we’re supposed to think she’s evil and her character is far more interesting as a result. But by the end of the episode, she’s just using her brains to work out ways to be reunited with her daughter.

Also in common with The Blacklist is a generic bunch of helper monkeys to ask dumb questions and for Carpenter to use her big brain against. Raza Jaffrey is there purely to object to Carpenter being there, while Noah Mills is there to look big and for Carpenter to make deductions about. Kelli Garner is there so it’s not obvious that there’s a bunch of men who have a woman in chains.

And Chestnut? Would that he were allowed even a hint of the characterisation he had in Rosewood. Instead, he’s generic FBI agent number five. He’s determined, professional, occasionally angry and good in a chase. But novel or exciting traits? Not a chance.

The Enemy Within

Spy games

Apart from its cast, The Enemy Within‘s main asset is obviously not its mundane take on The Blacklist nor or its regressive sexual politics – it’s the use of some moderately interesting tradecraft and ingenuity. Carpenter may not be evil, but she is smart and she does know codes, so although she might have dull reasons for everything she does, what she does is often surprising and not what you normally see in spy shows.

Nevertheless, every time there is something smart, there’s usually something dumb paired with it. Sure, Carpenter’s escape plan is novel, but it requires the audience to:

  1. Have never been to a dentist before
  2. For FBI dentists never to have considered that leaving trays of instruments around a prisoner is a good idea

Similarly, there’s a twist at the end that’s abundantly obvious yet massively improbable and also requires the FBI to be steaming idiots. The Enemy Within giveth and The Enemy Within taketh away.

All of which makes the show at least better than most procedurals, but a poor replacement for The Blacklist and quite weak viewing. Carpenter and Chestnut deserve better than they’re getting.