“The Enemy Within” is a generic FBI show with a generic title (although not more generic than Dick Wolf’s “FBI” on CBS) that had the good sense to cast Jennifer Carpenter as a helpful traitor. In the new series from Ken Woodruff (“The Mentalist,” “Gotham”), Carpenter plays Erica Shepherd, a former CIA operative who has spent the last three years in a Supermax prison after she betrays four other CIA agents who are killed. FBI Agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) needs her help in capturing a terrorist mastermind who appears to be bent on escalating attacks.
Operating on the idea that there are currently 100,000 foreign spies in the U.S. today, the series capitalizes on the xenophobia and paranoia in today’s political climate as its central task force hunts down the foes that walk among us.
After Carpenter earned critical acclaim for the “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and eight years on “Dexter,” broadcast TV failed to find the right vehicle to showcase her. CBS’ short-lived “Limitless” woefully underutilized her as the straight man to Jake McDorman, but “The Enemy Within” does a better job showcasing her range of talents by placing her in the tried-and-true role of a bad guy hired to catch another bad guy.
As Shepherd, Carpenter has entered the playground usually reserved for men like Anthony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen, James Spader, and Matt Bomer. Often, these criminal consultants are saucy, charming, and given to sartorial flamboyance. By design, Carpenter’s interpretation of the character is more earnest and less showy, mainly because of a twist that certain promos have already given away.
Shepherd is intense; her stillness is her ally as she takes in everyday clues (much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes) and astounds the FBI with her perception. However, unlike Holmes, she’s not cold or antisocial. Nothing is better than when Carpenter is allowed to show her humor, heartbreak, and passion, and “The Enemy Within” gives the camera plenty of opportunities to capture all three.
Chestnut has been a TV staple for a while, projecting authority and reliability, which works for Agent Keaton, if only he were given more to do than looking stern or dyspeptic. The rest of the cast — including Raza Jaffrey, Kelli Garner, Cassandra Freeman, and Noah Mills — are similarly functional but haven’t really had a chance to distinguish themselves early on.
“The Enemy Within” is earnest and self-serious to the point of absurdity. It aspires to be thrilling and twisty, and it certainly has enough car chases, wily escapes, shootouts, and undercover stings to account for the former. Unfortunately, despite a few token feints, most of its surprises and reversals have been telegraphed early on. The show is just far too facile and direct to do justice to the premise and its characters. At one point, Shepherd tells Keaton, “You have no idea what people are capable of,” which seems to indicate that the show wants to plumb the moral grayness of humanity that could lead to surprising acts, such as betrayal. But thus far, all of the motivations are fairly straightforward, which makes these heroes and villains rather one-note and boring. The dopes on “The Good Place” have far more moral and ethical complexity.
In order to create real tension, and real stakes, the show needs to insert an element of uncertainty. “The Enemy Within” already has the tools in its title. The real enemy that the team should watch out for isn’t just the unassuming spy or even one of their own — although that will no doubt come to pass — but their own weaknesses. Each person is in danger of being turned, depending on the circumstances.
Furthermore, the show avoids any specific mention of politics, partisanship, or the President. While this isn’t unusual and allows the show to play to a broader audience, it feels tone-deaf considering its subject matter. It’s a missed opportunity to make the show resonate by making a commentary about the unsettled feelings people have, of not trusting people in the real world, especially those who are in the highest levels of government.
Over the course of the season, perhaps “The Enemy Within” will find its nerve to live in the moral limbo and reflect some of the anxiety people are actually feeling. But in the episodes given to critics for review, it remains escapist fare with a self-serious veneer of danger. Carpenter brings the emotional weight; let’s hope the show lives up to her performance.
”The Enemy Within” premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET after “The Voice” on NBC.