“The Enemy Within” is, painstakingly and obviously, built to scratch a certain itch. NBC’s new drama is for anyone who ever picked up a paperback thriller at an airport, ripped through it in a single flight, and promptly forgot it by baggage claim. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, that’s exactly the kind of entertainment that can make a dull hour a decently distracting one. But “The Enemy Within” takes itself so seriously that it’s hard to imagine that this was its goal all along.
“The Enemy Within” finds yet another way to twist a “CIA meets FBI” conceit in the attempt to find new life within it. (Which, coincidentally, is also the case for ABC’s “Whiskey Cavalier,” which premieres the same week as “The Enemy Within” while going for a decidedly more comedic tone.) This time, creator Ken Woodruff sets grieving FBI agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) on the hunt for a shadowy super villain who keeps finding ways to infiltrate the American government and wreak destruction from within. In order to catch him, Keaton reluctantly recruits the help of Erica Shepherd (Jennifer Carpenter), a former CIA operative who’s been sitting in solitary confinement for three years after betraying four of her fellow officers, to fatal ends — one of which, it so happens, was Keaton’s fiancee. (This is how she got the cringeworthy nickname of “the Benedict Arnold of our generation,” a dramatic designation that the show nevertheless conveniently forgets when she needs to work with diplomats who apparently haven’t seen the front pages of a newspaper for years.)
“The Enemy Within” therefore hinges on a familiar combination of paranoia and determination, painting a picture of a fractured government that’s nonetheless full of decent people trying to do the right thing. It tries hard to seed shocking twists throughout, but in the two episodes screened for critics, every one is telegraphed loudly enough that the moments when the show deigns to reveal them is more a relief than a thrill. Meanwhile, Chestnut is saddled with delivering lines like “hunting [the villain] is like hunting a shadow in night” with such grim gravitas that they come off far more ridiculous than profound.
“The Enemy Within’s” saving grace is Carpenter’s performance, which is sharper and more subtle than the show itself ever gets. The script gives Erica clichéd monologue after clichéd monologue in order to make her interesting, but Carpenter delivers each like it’s brand new. (Not for nothing: Even in the tiny moments when Erica’s eyes dart around her surroundings in order to analyze them — moments when she practically becomes a CIA Sherlock Holmes — Carpenter finds ways to show how hard Erica’s thinking while barely moving her face at all.
So if the show can find more unique ways of harnessing its star’s power going forward, it might find a more interesting groove. Until then, “The Enemy Within” will remain more of a shrug than a must watch.