Monday, October 13, 2008

Start Making Sense: Thoughts on "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Life on Mars"

When the phrase "suspension of disbelieve" is tossed around, folks often exclude the first part of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's literary term, that being the "willing" part of "willing suspension of disbelief."

*Any* tv show, movie or book can ask its audience to suspend disbelief, but that doesn't mean we're gonna. And we're fickle, too. Like in the first season of "Friday Night Lights," there were cliches and contrivances aplenty, but because I was so wrapped up in the show, I almost never got into the sort of obsessive nit-picking that I usually get into. I didn't want to ruin the moment. Then when the show went off the rails, suddenly all of those affectations began to annoy me. Was the second season of "Friday Night Lights" less realistic -- Killer Landry aside -- than the first? Or was it just a case in which I felt as if my willingness to suspend disbelief had been corrupted and, with that contract in violation, I refused to play along any more? The latter I think. Many more people have experienced the same feelings with "Lost" in its second season or with "Heroes" in its second and third seasons. If the spell gets broken for a single second, it's something really hard to re-cast. Credit "Lost" for having mostly succeeded. Pity "Heroes" for not standing a chance.

Anyway, these thoughts came to my mind while thinking over the freshman dramas "Life on Mars" and "My Own Worst Enemy," two shows that ask an awful lot of their viewers.

My early read on "Mars," which premiered on ABC last Thursday, and "Enemy," which premieres on Monday (Oct. 13) on NBC, after the bump...

Click through...

Do you view the original British "Life on Mars" as sacred? I don't. Sorry. Lots of people love it, but I tuned out after two episodes. I have the first season on DVD and I'll give it another shot someday, maybe.

In any case, I'm not beholden to a John Simm/Philip Glenister version of "Life on Mars." If you want to whine because Harvey Keitel isn't beefy enough to play Gene Hunt, you aren't going to find any sympathy here. He's playing a different character and I'm not going to follow you down some lame compare/contrast road.

I didn't love the version of "Life on Mars" that aired on Thursday, but it annoyed me a lot less than "Grey's Anatomy" did and for that alone I'll watch a second or third episode.

"Life on Mars" worked for me because it jumped into its loopy premise -- cop gets hit by a car in 2008 and wakes up in 1973 -- and didn't bother to let go or rationalize long enough to make me less willing to suspend my disbelief.

Mostly, it seemed like a lot of people I respect were having a tremendous time and that was all that mattered to me. Jason O'Mara -- who is to ABC what Simon Baker is to CBS -- is a hammy, hammy actor, but I like watching him gesticulate and bulge his eyes and shout. I almost never believe a think he says, but he's lively. To play off of O'Mara, Keitel and Michael Imperioli have been asked to go as hammy as they possibly can as well. The show is made by a group of young writer-producers and my feeling is that they watched "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico," identified all of the freakiest, most SEVENTIES stereotypes from the periphery of those films and just decided that that was what everybody was like in 1973. Then, pilot director Gary Fleder and his production crew decided to make everything in the show's design look as dirty and yellowed and RETRO and NOSTALGIC as they possibly could. There isn't a subtle bone in the body of "Life on Mars." Every line of dialogue is chock-full of dramatic irony, every costume or musical choice. The show is self-conscious and over-the-top in all of the ways I originally feared that "Mad Men" was going to go after watching only the pilot, but just as "Mad Men" was smart to go understated and classy, "Life on Mars" would be wise to keep going tawdry and superficial.

The minute "Life on Mars" does anything realistic, it will cease to entertain me and begin to perplex me, because I'll be forced to wonder what's happening with O'Mara's Sam Tyler and then, even more dangerously, I'll be forced to decide whether or not I care.

Without contemplating it too deeply, I have no idea how Sam Tyler got back to 1973. And I don't know why I need to know or why I want to. I don't exactly get the mechanics of how Dorothy Gale landed in Oz, but I'd prefer a lack of explanation. And don't give me that "She was just knocked out in the twister and she hallucinated everything." I don't get any pleasure out of that assessment. I may, in fact, quit watching "Life on Mars" before the episode that explains everything.

"Life on Mars" will presumably have a series culminating episode that answers everything. That isn't going to be the case with "My Own Worst Enemy," a show that cripples itself by explaining exactly enough to make it infuriating.

"My Own Worst Enemy" airs as part of a Willing Suspension of Disbelief Monday on NBC.

On "Chuck" at 8 p.m. we're asked to believe that a man could download an entire supercomputer of intelligence into his brain and just be used indefinitely as a government intelligence asset. For now show currently on TV am I so willingly suspending my disbelieve.

"Heroes" has lost me at 9 p.m. I no longer understand why Peter Petrelli's powers work the way they do, nor why the only threats take place in the future, nor why all of the characters no seem to be siblings, cousins or half-siblings. At the end of the first season, Tim Kring and company proved that no matter what paths their show is taking, they probably won't be satisfying in the end, a failure of destination that has made even the journey unappealing. That I'm going to keep watching "Heroes" isn't really a compliment. I still watch "One Tree Hill."

But anyway...

"My Own Worst Enemy" was created by Jason Smilovic, whose characters -- see "Kidnapped," "Lucky Number Slevin" and several seconds of "Bionic Woman" -- are nothing if not chatty. Smilovic is smart and clever, but to say he's prone to over-writing would be an understatement, which means that he's half the perfect person to do a show like "My Own Worst Enemy" and half exactly the wrong person.

On one hand, "My Own Worst Enemy" is trippy and confusing fun. Christian Slater plays cold-blooded government agent Edward Albright as well as milquetoast-y management consultant Henry Spivey. It's a bit disappointing that an opening scene doesn't allow Edward to bludgeon a Russian spy with a prominently labeled first edition of Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," because those character names aren't accidental. Henry and Edward occupy the same body in which appears to be a relatively awkward timeshare.

Edward knows about Henry, but Henry doesn't know about Edward and it all has to do with an elaborate government program fronted by Alfre Woodard.

So Edward goes around the world screwing sexy Russian spies and killing them and then, with the flick of a switch, he becomes Henry, a man with a spotty memory for some business trip in Middle America. But when Edward starts becoming Henry at unplanned intervals and Henry starts popping up where Edward used to be... Well... Everything gets complicated.

There are many reasons to construct a secret identity for a spy or a superhero. And there's something intriguing and engaging about the idea of an ordinary man who doesn't know he's also a body count accumulating spy. And certainly "My Own Worst Enemy" has high enough production values and muscular action scenes, courtesy of "Heroes" pilot helmer David Semel. It's an attractive, hi-def-friendly cast that includes Madchen Amick, Saffron Burrows and Taylor Lautner, with Mike O'Malley around for comic relief and Woodard around for effortless authority. [Lautner, who plays Slater's son, can be expected to mysteriously vanish at the end of the first season after "Twilight" makes him a tween star and his agent decides he's too big to be playing 8th fiddle on a third tier network.]

Everybody talks like a Smilovic character -- he isn't so great with differentiated voices -- and it's a good time.

But Smilovic's characters talk too much and too much effort is made to lay a foundation for how Edward/Henry came to be at this crossroad. And with every new piece of information I was given, my reaction went from "why?" to "Why?!?" to "WHy?!?!" to "WHY?!?!!?!?"

I can think of no circumstances under which it Edward/Henry makes sense as the end result of a project. He isn't efficient or cost-effective or practical on any level. That fact that a research *could* "manifest a divergent identity" of this nature, doesn't explain why they *would* or why it would be a nearly-20-year program or why it would be at all logical to do it with an agent as clearly gifted as Edward. The "less is more" approach taken on "Life on Mars" absolutely would have benefited "My Own Worst Enemy." They more they say, the more they fiddle with gadgets or delve into Edward's psychological make-up, the less I believe. Woodard is a commanding enough actress that she can blather almost anything and get away with it, but even she can't sell the background of this story.

The show's star, the long-absent Slater, is good but not great. The difference between Edward and Henry is mostly defined by degrees of squinting and the tilt of Slater's eyebrows. Edward is basically the Jack Nicholson impression that Slater started to try to downplay around 15 years ago, while Henry is the meek Everyman Slater's been trying to play repeatedly in a variety of straight-to-video indies over the year. They aren't clearly enough delineated to prevent occasional slippage between characters and there were more than a few times that I lost track of how Slater was supposed to be and whether he was playing one personality pretending to be the other personality, or whether he just forgot to relax his brow. As such things go, what Slater's doing here isn't in the same ballpark as what James Nesbitt did in the BBC's recent "Jekyll." I'm not sure it's on the same level as Timothy Hutton's split personality in "The Dark Half."

Yet I'm engaged enough to watch again, probably to stick with "My Own Worst Enemy" as long as NBC is. Monday nights are hell, but the 10 p.m. hour is light for me. But don't expect my willingness to suspend disbelief to last forever. It may quickly become too difficult to be worthwhile.


  1. If you want to whine because Harvey Keitel isn't beefy enough to play Gene Hunt, you aren't going to find any sympathy here. He's playing a different character and I'm not going to follow you down some lame compare/contrast road.

    Ouch, baby. Very ouch.

  2. Anonymous11:17 AM

    I don't care that Harvey isn't beefy enough for Gene Hunt. I care than he's all artifice and no essence. He's superficially a lout and a sexist pig, but it feels like an act by Harvey. In the BBC version, Gene Hunt felt like an authentic character. He doesn't in the ABC version.