NBC has announced that the series “My Own Worst Enemy” starring Christian Slater has been canceled. Who cares? Well, probably no one, but examining the trivia of culture and society can often be instructive, and failures often teach more than success. The brief run of “Mine Own Worst Enemy” is probably interesting for what it tells us about Hollywood, how it views the leading man, and what works on Television and what does not, in attracting male viewers, and the future of entertainment in depicting how men and women interact.
First, it’s a measure of how Hollywood has changed that Slater would agree to star in the series. Only 39, Slater is best known for his role in “True Romance.” Much like his slightly older contemporary and “24” star, Kiefer Sutherland (age 42), Slater has found work mostly as villains or supporting characters in films. While sometimes derided as “Jack Light” for what critics have called fairly obvious copying of Jack Nicholson’s acting techniques and persona, Slater is at least not a metrosexual. In contrast with younger rivals such as Ashton Kutcher, Josh Hartnett, Shia LaBeouf, Orlando Bloom, Colin Farrel, or Zac Efron, the male actors who came of age in the 1980’s and early 1990’s are finding it difficult to land leading roles in film. The best known example would be Judd Nelson, who went from 1985’s “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” to 1996’s sitcom “Suddenly Susan” with fellow 1980’s star Brooke Shields.
Other leading men who would logically be film stars but end up as leading men on TV are William Peterson (“CSI”), Anthony LaPaglia (“Without A Trace”), Mark Harmon (“NCIS”), Rob Morrow (“NUMB3RS”), Damien Lewis (“Life”), Joe Mantegna (“Criminal Minds”), Hugh Laurie (“House”), Rufus Sewell (“Eleventh Hour”), Gary Sinise (“CSI: NY”), and Simon Baker (“the Mentalist”). Ranging in age from their thirties to mid fifties, none of these men could be considered “Metrosexual” and most play characters who are both tough, in some form or another, and lead teams. Others demonstrate “manly independence” by playing men who buck the conventional wisdom (Baker, Laurie, and Sewell). What is interesting about this situation is that none of these men can be found as leads in films where you would expect them. Add Slater and Sutherland to the mix and the picture of a film industry dominated by what Ovitz called “the Gay Mafia” could not be clearer.
Certainly, the idea that “television is the sincerest form of imitation” as comedian Fred Allen put it, is likely partly responsible for the weird situation that Television dramatic series finds itself in. While nearly all sitcoms are female skewing (80% of sitcom viewers are female), and most of television in either reality format (“American Idol,” “Survivor,” etc.) or dramatic format (“Gossip Girl,” “Desperate Housewives”) is very female oriented, there is this strangely masculine outcropping of shows with very masculine characters as the leads.
This suggests that there is a strong appetite, despite the film world’s perceived wisdom, for a conventional portrayal of masculinity. After all, a TV dramatic series that does not pull in ratings is soon canceled, witness “My Own Worst Enemy.” Costs for an hour of a dramatic series can run into three or four million dollars per episode, or $88 million per year. Networks, in the meantime, must sell advertising against viewers, and have to rebate money and/or advertising spots to sponsors when they don’t reach agreed upon levels of viewers. It’s bad for everyone when television series don’t make money. The Networks lose money, and the studios lose their investments which can be considerable in developing and producing the series. This is true even if the studio and network are part of the same company, the money lost is still lost. Formulas that work, tend to produce imitations, as Fred Allen observed nearly half a century ago.
The “Bruckheimer Formula,” first debuted in 2000 with “CSI” and featured a strong, though offbeat, male lead in William Peterson, who led gently but firmly, a varied “team” of subordinates. Debuting one year later, “24” featured another strong male lead, this time a “maverick” who rejected the conventional wisdom within a team setting and demonstrating independence, got results. Both the “Bruckheimer Formula,” and the “24” formula were soon copied, and probably are responsible for the amount of traditional male lead actors on TV today. The “Bruckheimer” formula depicts, the male lead as the boss, often focusing (“NUMB3RS”, the various CSI franchises, “NCIS” and “Without A Trace”) on the responsibilities inherent in that position. Sometimes complicated by a relationship or attraction for a younger, female subordinate (“CSI,” “Without A Trace”). The “24” formula focuses on the rejection of conventional wisdom by offbeat, independent, “maverick” male leads seeking human connections. “Life,” “the Mentalist,” “House,” and “the Eleventh Hour,” are part of that formula.
What is interesting is how absent these formulas (which obviously work, if executed with a modicum of skill) are from film. Hollywood big and medium budget films seem to depend on “name” actors like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, rehashed concepts such as “Get Smart,” or “Starsky and Hutch” from decades old television shows. Generally, these films fail. While studios will raid the ranks of TV for leading men (such as “the Office’s” Steve Carrell), the roles they play are mostly comedic, and lack the proven appeal of the conventional leading man. Very strong evidence of a “Gay Mafia” in the film industry insisting on the Metrosexual leading man and ignoring the evidence of their own Television productions on how successful formulas and actors can make money.
It certainly tells the careful observer about what type of roles are available in what type of medium when Joe Mantagna, William Peterson, Gary Sinise, Rob Morrow, Mark Harmon, Anthony LaPaglia, Damien Lewis, Simon Baker, Rufus Sewell, Hugh Laurie, Keifer Sutherland, and Christian Slater all star in Television series instead of feature films. Leading men do exist, but only on Television. Only Metrosexuals need apply for film roles.
“My Own Worst Enemy” is interesting in how it tried to break out of either the Bruckheimer or 24-style formulas, and how audiences rejected that effort. Unlike either formula, “Enemy” worked with a number of themes, some of them actually interesting if poorly executed, but was done in by unlikeable characters. “Enemy” concerned family man “Henry Spivey,” who works for a boring consulting firm “AJ Sun.” To his horror, he discovers he has a manufactured split personality, and even worse it was deliberately induced by the shadowy government agency “Janus” (an anagram of AJ Sun, sigh). Henry is the manufactured personality, the perfect cover, created by a computer chip implanted in his brain. The “real” personality is “Edward,” a ruthless agent and killer with few real emotions, no personal life, no real friends, and an irresistible touch with the ladies. When the “chip” malfunctions and the personalities “wake up” in each other’s worlds, they must cope with situations they are ill-prepared for. Henry, with the violent world of betrayal and torture and murder of Edward’s missions, and Edward with the boring mundane nature of Henry’s life, one he sought to escape by agreeing to the split personality in the first place.
One of the interesting ideas put forward was that Henry, though he was not very good at violence, was more the “real man” of the two, being willing to face death than allow the death of a fellow agent who discovered that he is “broken.” Even facing down a killer “Edward” sent by pretending to be Edward. Whereas Edward was all to willing to kill the fellow agent in pure self-preservation. Meanwhile, women adore Edward (including Henry’s own wife, unknowingly), even though he is often cruel and dismissive to them. Which naturally, enrages Henry. That is fairly remarkable, and something that the writers should be congratulated for depicting.
Almost nowhere else in Hollywood has anyone ever covered the modern woman’s desire for the Alpha Jerk (which “Edward” is in spades) and the jealousy and anger it produces in the ordinary guy. For that alone, “My Own Worst Enemy” deserves to be remembered. That the show also tried to suggest that heroism is not merely killing lots of people, but standing up for decency, even at potentially great cost, is also a land mark moment, as was the deliberate positioning that “Henry” was the true hero and the “real” personality “Edward” mostly a villain.
What did in “Enemy,” however, was the sheer unlikable nature of nearly all it’s characters. While the obvious influences of “La Femme Nikita” with the secret agency willing and often eager to sacrifice it’s agents was clearly identifiable, the writers and producers forgot that it’s 2008, not the mid 1990’s, and angst for angst’s sake does not work in the already anxiety overloaded times of the late 2000’s. It did not help that the cliched “wise Black woman” trope made it’s appearance in the character of Edward’s boss, or that there was little humor, quirks, or oddities in the supporting characters to draw viewer interests. Yes, the premise of a government spy agency creating the perfect cover by using a chip that creates a split personality is ludicrous, but then so are talking, thinking cars, a physician who is the modern incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, people with superpowers, vampire detectives, and a police officer wrongly imprisoned for a crime, newly exonerated and back in his old job with a hefty multi-million dollar settlement. People watched those shows plenty.
It may also be that not many of the male audience for “My Own Worst Enemy” liked the setup of a family man discovering his existence is one giant cover and “fake.” If my post Hollywood’s Romantic Comedies For Men suggests, men are getting married at later ages, and in fewer numbers. As more men stay single, the end goal or “happy ever after” would be marriage and family. The depiction of that state as very much NOT happy ever after may have hurt the series ability to draw male viewers significantly, and obviously did not draw in female viewers either.
Television shows, of course, face ruthless competition. The off button, or whatever is on the next channel. Likable characters are a must, for a show to succeed. The worst enemy of “Mine Own Worst Enemy” was that lack of characters the audience wanted to spend time with, excluding “Henry.” That the show did not shy away from depicting the “real” personality of “Edward” as a villain and possible murderer was not designed to make audiences tune in again either. It is clear that Slater relished playing the dual role, but things that amuse actors don’t always amuse audiences. It is doubtful that the upcoming FOX-TV series “Dollhouse,” with Buffy alumni Eliza Dushku and Joss Whedon, will fare any different. Audiences will endure PC, ridiculous premises, and often laughable plots in pursuit of likable characters. Absent characters they enjoy spending time with, well there’s always another channel.
One thing that also stands out in the interesting failure of “My Own Worst Enemy” was how poorly drawn the female characters were. The character of Henry’s wife was a cipher, and his psychiatrist, played by Saffron Burrows, was also a cipher. That’s in contrast, and markedly so, to the female characters in either the Bruckheimer or 24 formulas. Who are generally given their own quirks, oddities, motivations, and sub-plots, such as “Life’s” rough-tough, aggressive female partner played with comedic burn by Sarah Shahi, pursued the by smitten (and hilariously so) Donal Logue (from “the Tao of Steve”). Or “the Mentalist’s” Robin Tunney, alternately enraged or charmed by lead Simon Baker, and presented as a deadly with a gun, willing to shoot it out with bad guys.
While it seems that most of the audience for the male-lead shows are men, there are significant portions of female viewers, and both men and women viewers seem to prefer female characters of interest and complexity. The old formula of the hot but ill-defined female character won’t do any more, it seems. Even a show like the “Mentalist” takes pain to characterize a secondary female character like Amanda Righetti’s “Grace Van Pelt” as naive and sweet, rather than just a walking prop and exposition machine. This is a good thing, even though plots are often laughable, and poorly executed, characterization of both male and female characters, even extending to secondary ones, is far better than in times past, for the most part.
Men certainly don’t seem to want a return to the 1950’s of women in the kitchen wearing pearls. Any strong and aggressive female character, and one shown to be attracted to an ordinary guy, is pretty much guaranteed to get male viewers in spades. “Chuck” mines that territory as the entire show, “Life” obviously saw the appeal of that and copied it as well (Fred Allen was quite right). It shows up in “the Mentalist,” and in “Eleventh Hour.” Very likely Joss Whedon and Rob Thomas left millions of dollars on the table with their series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars” by not pushing that particular device, since male audiences are hungry for it, even if female audiences generally don’t like it (and they don’t).
It is however, quite sad that the male demand for strong, aggressive female characters paired with very ordinary or un-Macho leading men (even if they are depicted as heroic) exists. Since in real life, strong and aggressive women prefer more strong and aggressive men than themselves, in traditional, uber-macho, “Alpha Jerk” format, just like “Edward” on “My Own Worst Enemy.” Too much reality in depicting that situation may turn off audiences, men who prefer the fantasy, and women who don’t like the reality shown.
It is likely, however, that someone will mine the territory that “Enemy” explored, the ordinary guy left out in the cold by a female preference for the “Alpha Jerk,” and the relative unimportance placed on everything else, along with the true meaning of heroism in an age where a willingness to die to save others can be more brave than self-preservation for a meaningless existence.
After all, 1968’s “the Outsider” starring Darren McGavin re-appeared in slightly different format, with a different format, and had some success. It was called “the Rockford Files.” You might have heard of it.