‘The Enemy Within’ Review: Spy Games We’ve Already Played Before

     February 25, 2019

NBC’s The Enemy Within begins with a stat: “The FBI estimates there are one hundred thousand foreign spies working within the United States today….More than any other time in history.” Now, I’m no analyst, but I can pretty confidently estimate that it feels like there are roughly the same amount of FBI and/or CIA-themed espionage shows airing on TV right now [dramatic pause] more than any other time in history. The Americans recently come to a close, but there is still Killing Eve, Whiskey Cavalier, Criminal Minds, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Gone, FBI, and NBC’s long-running The Blacklist out here kicking in doors the way characters on TV have always kicked in doors. By that metric, a new show would have to work overtime to differentiate itself from the pack. And some do! Created by Ken WoodruffThe Enemy Within…does not do this, at least in the first two episodes available for review. Instead, it’s an almost painfully paint-by-numbers exercise where every single number is 24. 

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Image via NBC

It’s a shame, too, because the first five minutes of the pilot are so jarringly batty I was sure it would live up to the idea of a spy show created by a Gotham producer. CIA Deputy Director of Operations Erica Shepherd (Jennifer Carpenter) is arrested for espionage and conspiracy against the United States for aiding Mikhail Vassily Tal—the kind’ve shadowy, all-knowing super-terrorist Big Bad these type of shows love—in the murder of four CIA operatives. Time Magazine’s cover declares “AMERICAN TRAITOR.” A newscaster brands Shepherd “the most hated woman in America.” Another dubs her “the Benedict Arnold of our generation.” The show is like two seconds from showing a mob pelting this woman with tomatoes. Shepherd is brought in chains to a supermax prison straight out of a comic book, and the stage is set for an intriguing premise.

Unfortunately, The Enemy Within then immediately settles into its groove, starts taking itself very seriously, and begins playing very familiar tunes indeed. When Tal resurfaces for four more attacks, the FBI—led up by Morris Chestnut‘s Agent Will Keaton—digs a dead-eyed Shepherd out of jail because she’s the only one who understands the enemy’s mind. It’s such an obvious Silence of the Lambs riff—complete with Shepherd unnervingly breaking down people’s personalities through intense observation—that Woodruff’s script just goes ahead and has a character call Shepherd “Hannibal Lecter.”

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Image via NBC

That’s the frustrating thing about The Enemy Within. It’s not even pretending to be anything other than broadcast TV comfort food. The action in the first two episodes, directed by Mark Pellington (Blindspot) and Richard Lewis (Designated Survivor), is the kind of perfectly serviceable pieces you might rubberneck to look at on the freeway. Characters solve problems in minutes at long boardroom tables in front of a screen with graphics on it. The dialogue, delivered in rapid-fire bursts while the camera immediately whooshes to whoever is speaking, is at least 60% breathless exposition at all times. Any scene set in an office, of which there are many, always, always has a phone ringing in the background. You can probably even hear it right now, because it’s the same phone that’s been ringing since ABC’s The F.B.I.

Jennifer Carpenter almost singlehandedly makes the proceedings worth it, putting in a performance that’s disquietly haunted until the character breaks down, and then she’s disquietly human. Again, it’s an obvious Lecter, but Carpenter does good Lecter; it’s hard to look like your breaking a person down in your head without looking silly, but she pulls it off mostly with her eyes. It’s the characterization itself that undercuts the performance. I’m relatively sure the show’s marketing has done this already, but I won’t spoil Shepherd’s exact reasons for betraying the United States because it undercuts the pilot’s one genuinely emotional moment. But you should know that, in hindsight, the reveal kind of makes the whole spending three years chained to a bed inside a supermax prison thing not avoidable, per se, but definitely a result that could have been discussed a little further.

The Enemy Within follows a formula, and you know what? The formula often works. I felt almost nothing by way of surprise or emotion across two hours of this show, which, in broadcast drama terms, might mean it runs for seven seasons and a 2030 revival. Familiarity can be fun, I don’t dispute this. But life is far too short—and the TV landscape far too crowded—to play spy games I’ve already played dozens of times before.

Rating: ★★

The Enemy Within premieres Monday, February 25 on NBC.

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