'Nikita': Spies Like Them

It appears that Nikita is going to be a down-and-dirty brawling kind of series, where martial arts serve a function besides looking really cool.


Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Maggie Q, Shane West, Xander Berkeley, Lyndsy Fonseca, Melinda Clarke, Aaron Stanford, Ashton Holmes, Tiffany Hines
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: The CW
Director: Danny Cannon
Air date: 2010-09-09

At the start of CW's Nikita, the title character (played by Maggie Q) explains in voiceover that she was taken out of prison six years ago. Inducted into a top-secret spy program, she escaped three years after that, and has been running ever since. Then we're in Detroit, watching a robbery of prescription drugs go bad. The two assailants, disguised in pig and rabbit masks, botch the robbery. Someone dies, the pig escapes, and the rabbit is arrested. Unmasked, the rabbit turns out to be 16-year-old Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca), a tough street girl who fights the cops at every opportunity.

If you've seen the previous film versions of Nikita's story, Alex's will seem familiar: she wakes up in a cement room, where she's told by Michael (Shane West) that she's been declared officially dead and is getting a second chance at her life. The people at the black ops operation called Division are going to train her to be an effective spy. A tour of Division reveals a room full of a "bunch of guys in training" and a cafeteria with a couple of fellow recruits who try to get to know Alex. Being a girl spy-in-the-making, she's also assigned the requisite etiquette and beauty instructor, here played by Melinda Clarke.

Intercut with Alex's induction into Division are scenes with Nikita, whose recurring nightmares serve as flashbacks to her life in Division, and she visits her former foster father to remind him what an evil loser he was, but mostly to give the audience a pile of exposition. It's all a fairly bland setup as far as spy shows go, including a flashback where she's on a mission in a skimpy red bathing suit. The viewer doesn't really know what's going on here, which is intentional. What probably isn't intentional is that we have a hard time caring about it, or really Nikita herself.

Nikita is just the latest of many shows (and movies) about spies, and is the fourth iteration of this particular property. It follows Luc Besson's original film, the Hollywood remake (Point of No Return) starring Bridget Fonda, and the USA Network's TV show. There's more than a little air of "been there, done that" around this show.

And then, strangely enough, the pilot's final third stops re-introducing the concept and snaps into compelling focus. We learn at least partly why Nikita, after being on the run for three years, has decided to show herself to Division. The resident nerd, Birkhoff (Aaron Stanford), gets a chance to show his loyalty to Division when Nikita kidnaps and interrogates him. He makes it clear that he has no intention of talking, but still flinches when she holds a gun to his head. Nikita doesn't deny it when he accuses her of wanting to bring down Division, but doesn't seem to like it much when Birkhoff points out that she's going to have to kill a lot of people she knows if this is her goal. Stanford plays this as a lingering accusation, and director Danny Cannon waits just long enough to let Q subtly react to it.

There are also very good scenes where Nikita confronts Percy (Xander Berkeley), the man in charge, and has to convince Michael, her former handler, not to kill her. With Percy, Nikita gets a quiet moment to talk to the boss about the bad things he's doing. He makes it clear that he has no use for her moralizing; he knows what's best for Division and for the United States. (Berkeley, probably best known as George Mason in the early days of 24, bears more than a passing resemblance to Ron Rifkin, who played Arvin Sloane, the head baddie on Alias, creating enough similarity between the two to be distracting.)

Amid such generic plotting, the show serves up an extended action sequence in a hotel that's nicely shot and choreographed, establishing the template for other fight scenes. It appears that Nikita is going to be a down-and-dirty brawling kind of series, where martial arts serve a function besides looking really cool. Maggie Q can believably hold her own in an action scene, but her slight frame makes it difficult to buy that she will be an unbeatable force in hand-to-hand combat, especially against well-trained Division assassins. It's telling that Nikita takes a few hard shots herself in the process of dispatching a pair of these assassins.

Maggie Q seems to be a good choice for the title role, even though she doesn't spend much time emoting in this first episode. It's still something of a novelty to build a TV series around an Asian American lead -- though plenty of recent ensemble and reality TV shows have featured prominent cast members of Asian descent.

That said, this show doesn't call attention to Nikita's background. Its focus so far seems to be on action and a tone that's grittier than most spy shows. It's still operating in a heightened action-TV reality, but the technology and weapons aren't over the top, a la Alias, and Nikita's plans work out due to extensive preparation, not pseudo-superpowers like, say, Chuck.

That said, Alex and her two friends seem a little too CW-pretty to be convincing spies, and they talk like they're in high school. This is jarring amongst the concrete grey walls and fluorescent lights of Division's (we assume) underground headquarters. But by the end of the premiere episode, Nikita has set up some intrigue concerning Nikita's future plans and her connections to old associates. And all of this is framed by the show's own status as a repetition: it looks like Nikita be confronting her history more than once.

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