NBC’s new drama “Do No Harm,” which premieres on the network January 31st but is current being offered up for preview on Hulu, is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde variation starring Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) as neurosurgeon Dr. Jason Cole, who from 8:25pm to 8:25am every night is taken over by his deviant alternate personality Ian Price. The show’s careful to say that its protagonist doesn’t have Dissociative Identity Disorder — instead, he suffers from something like it that’s also its own conveniently regular thing. But the distinction feel unnecessary, given the long history DID, or multiple personality disorder, has at being stretched, warped and abused into fiction’s most convenient excuse for crazy plot twists or high-concept scenarios. Here’s a look at some of TV’s most memorable uses of multiple personalities.
“One Life to Live” (1968-2012)
Multiple personalities are as much a soap opera standard as amnesia, evil twins and returning from the dead — in “One Life to Live,” for instance, main character Viki Lord (Erika Slezak) has struggled with DID throughout the decades. Caught between wanting to please her controlling, abusive millionaire dad Victor and to be herself, Viki developed the alternate personality of Niki Smith, a wild party girl who complicated issues by falling for Vinny Wolek (Antony Ponzini) despite Viki’s being in love with reporter Joe Riley (Lee Patterson). While Viki was treated for her condition, Niki would pop up again and again to wreak havok on Viki’s life over the years (though she did also come to the rescue), eventually joined by other alters that included 14-year-old male Tommy, the psychotic and murderous Tori and a version of Viki’s father. Viki’s daughter Jessica (Erin Torpey, later Bree Williamson) was released to have inherited her mother’s condition, enabling the nutty storylines to continue across generations.
The producers of “Taxi” allowed Andy Kaufman to give the character of Latka Gravas different personalities to keep the comedian/performance artist from getting tired of always playing the same role, one inspired by his Foreign Man act. Latka, was an innocent, friendly and heavily accented immigrant from an unspecified country, but his alter ego Vic Ferrari, born from Latka’s studying of radio DJs and Playboy magazines, was slick, a ladies’ man and somehow spoke much better English. In the season four episode “Mr. Personalities,” Latka is taken to a psychiatist after developing other alters, including that of the cowboy Arlo and the English Jeffrey, eventually taking on the personality of colleague Alex (Judd Hirsch), and offering up a deeper understanding of the man’s life than Alex himself possesses. “Family Matters” character Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) had a similarly suave, smooth-talking alter ego — Stefan Urquelle.
“Melrose Place” (1992-1999)
Marcia Cross’s Dr. Kimberly Shaw was in multiple comas, attempted suicide more than once, stole a baby, had hallucinations, blew up a building and continually swore revenge on her enemies, including her scheming sometimes-love and sometimes-tormentor Michael Mancini (Thomas Calabro). So when she developed dissociative identity disorder in season four of the Aaron Spelling primetime soap, it was only the latest (literally) insane thing to happen to the character. The best thing about Kimberly’s adventure in multiple personalities was that her initial alter, Betsy, a Bree Van de Kamp-style prim and perfect housewife who did the ironing, hosted tupperware parties (!) and would sooner set a sofa on fire than use it again after people have had sex on it — also, she wanted to kill Michael, not a new urge on the show. Later, another alter, the cigar-smoking biker chick Rita, showed up (“Rita knows how to take care of her man”), and Kimberly attempted to get help from Dr. Peter Burns (Jack Wagner), only to be taken over by Betsy, who then tried to go Nurse Ratched on everyone.
Was superpowered web cam girl Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) named after the character in “One Life to Live,” or was it just a coincidence? This Niki’s DID gave her a Hulk-like sensibility — stressed and on the run from mobsters, she started blacking out and discovering that her amoral and super-strong alter ego Jessica (the name of her identical sister killed by their abusive, alcoholic father when they were children) was taken over during the missing time. What made the Niki/Jessica dichotomoy interesting, at least in the first season of the series before it went off the rails, was that the poverty-stricken single mom (her husband being in jail) Niki was continually, almost resignedly victimized by life, while Jessica, scary and psychotic as she was, took control and fought back and sometimes murdered people, all in the interests of improving their lot. The strength became an expression of that divide — Jessica was intensely strong, while Niki had no power at all, and one of the best early moments for the character came when, as Niki, she broke the nightstick of a prison guard who wouldn’t let her hug her son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey), proving that both sides of the woman had always been capable of accessing her gift.
“My Own Worst Enemy” (2008)
This short-lived Christan Slater spy series, created by Jason Smilovic, was another Jekyll and Hyde variation — the main character and his alter ego even shared first names with Robert Louis Stevenson’s, though the split between his good and evil side was the creation of an implanted chip rather than a serum. Henry’s a suburban family man who works as an efficiency expert, while his alter Edward is a trained secret agent — until, of course the divide that keeps them separate starts breaking down and Henry starts waking up in the middle of gun battles while Edward tries to play dad. It was a goofy premise that actually allowed Slater to play nicely against himself as the two personalities attempted to work with (and sometimes against) each other in order to avoid being discovered, but the series ended with a cliffhanger after only nine episodes.
“United States of Tara” (2009-2011)
Based on an idea by Steven Spielberg and created and executive produced by Diablo Cody, “United States of Tara” centered around Toni Collette as Tara Gregson, a Kansas wife and mother trying to manage several alternate personalities. The series was probably the most grounded attempt at portraying Dissociative Identity Disorder to show up on the small screen, in that the show had a consultant with DID and no interest in using the disorder as an excuse for a character to suddenly show up in a wig and stab people in the shower (twist!). While DID was still used as much as a metaphor for the compartmentalization all people do in their lives as an actual condition, the series’ attempt to show someone (and that someone’s family) living with it on a day-to-day basis rather than be focused solely on finding a cure made it unique, and one of the few portrayals in which the idea of an easy “cure” is just a myth.
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