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'The Enemy Within' Seems a Little Unsure of Its Goal
February 25, 2019  | By David Hinckley

NBC’s new The Enemy Within clones its premise from The Blacklist then changes pretty much all the details.

That helps it feel fresh. It also feels like it’s taking a bit of a gamble.

The Enemy Within, which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET, specifically seems to be banking on the appeal of its two central characters, and that’s not a bad bet.

Jennifer Carpenter, still perhaps best known as Michael C. Hall’s sister Deb on Dexter, plays Erica Shepherd, a former CIA star now serving life for revealing the identities of four fellow agents who were subsequently murdered by one of the world’s most dangerous and crafty terrorists, Tal (Alex Feldman).

Morris Chestnut plays Will Keaton, an FBI agent now tasked with finding Tal, who has subsequently murdered more agents and set off a bomb that killed 14 people in an office near Wall Street.

Catching him, therefore, has a certain urgency – and Shepherd remains the intelligence community’s foremost expert on him since she spent five years heading up a task force that thwarted one of Tal’s earlier and more ambitious terror plans.

So Keaton reluctantly must seek Shepherd’s help, which he finds distasteful both professionally and personally. While they were employed by rival agencies, this isn’t Keaton’s first encounter with Shepherd.

Still, as The Blacklist confirmed, sometimes it takes a criminal to catch a criminal, so Shepherd and Keaton become an odd-couple team. If there’s a “will they or won’t they” in this relationship, it’s a long way off.

There are other players here, of course. The opening episode introduces us to law enforcement teams and several key subplots.

But The Enemy Within is going to rise or fall on how attached viewers become to the partners in this arranged marriage at the center of the story.

While Shepherd is described as the most hated woman in America, a treasonous turncoat who sent four Americans to their deaths, viewers immediately learn what America did not: that there is a context here, a reason she did what she did.

Part of the show’s ongoing story will deal with whether her actions can ever be understood, never mind forgiven. But like Red Reddington on The Blacklist, and in contrast to how we’re told America feels, Shepherd is not framed as an incarnation of evil.

Carpenter sets that up well, playing Shepherd as wary and realistic yet not completely out of hope.

Chestnut faces a similar balancing act. Left on his own with Shepherd, he might strangle her. On the other hand, he knows that without Shepherd he’s far less likely to catch a man who threatens the safety of all Americans.  

Previous shows like The Blacklist or The Mentalist, which had a similar long-game story, kept things fresh by blending that drama into a new short-term case every week. The procedural element meant viewers could get a satisfying wrap-up almost every episode even as the larger story unfolded more slowly.  

Presumably, The Enemy Within will do something similar. The challenge there lies in the fact that Shepherd’s foundation story and the urgency of stopping Tal feel so overwhelming that any interim weekly cases could be overshadowed by that larger quest.  

For that reason, the opening episode feels more like the start of a limited, closed-end series, not a drama that NBC and the producers apparently would like to keep running indefinitely.

That larger story seems compelling. The creators just have to give it some worthy company.

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