TV Review: NIKITA, 1.1 – "Pilot"

In the prolific spy genre, Nikita has had a particularly fascinating genesis; originally a 1990 French movie directed by Luc Besson, later remade into English as 1993's Point Of No Return (a.k.a The Assassin, starring Bridget Fonda), before transferring to TV as Canadian series La Femme Nikita in 1997 (with Peta Wilson), it's now been revived again with Hong Kong action star Maggie Q as the lead... In a leap on from the earlier incarnation's premises, Nikita (Q) has already gone rogue from Division, a secret government program that rescued her from Death Row, faked her death, then trained her to be a top assassin. "The Pilot" picks up a few years after Nikita's escape from Division, as she returns to destroy the organization that created her. Concurrently, street kid Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca) has become the latest conscript into the Dollhouse-like Division; caught and prosecuted for armed robbery, the young girl wakes up find herself in their secret facility where fellow delinquents have likewise been given the chance of a "new life" as part of their nefarious program. Nikita offers audiences nothing new, partly because its own story has been told three times already, but mainly because the tropes it deals with are thick genre clichés. It's a sorely predictable setup and doesn't offer many fresh elements, beyond an intriguing decision to give the series two parallel stories: Nikita trying to annihilate Division from the outside, as Alex inevitably does likewise from within. Maddeningly, this dual aspect of the show appears to have been undone thanks to a last-minute twist, which I'm far from convinced is a wise move. You just can't shake the feeling you've seen it all before, so why should you bother to invest time in watching? Everything about the cast reminds you we've seen these characters and this situation a thousand times before. We have Percy (Xander Berkeley), the exacting head of Division hellbent on protecting the company; Birkhoff (Aaron Stanford), the likeable geek working for the bad guys; sympathetic Michael (Shane West), Nikita's mentor now tasked with eliminating his protégée; Amanda (Melinda Clarke), a manipulative psychologist employed to brainwash Division's recruits; and two cocky comrades for Alex to grapple with in eager Thom (Ashton Holmes) and bitter Jaden (Tiffany Hines). Of course, you can still have fun with a show built from clichés and likely destined to walk a well-trodden path. Sometimes the very simplicity of a concept allows for other elements of a TV show to receive a significant boost to compensate. Maggie Q is undoubtedly intended to be Nikita's "secret weapon"; a skinny Hawaiian-born former-model, discovered by Jackie Chan and turned into a Hong Kong action heroine. In many ways her career trajectory echoes Nikita's own, as Q famously admitted she "couldn't even touch toes" back when she started appearing in Chinese action films. Q certainly has presence, and Nikita takes full advantage of its star's sex appeal €“ most overtly in a sequence where Nikita's in a red bikini that appears to be made from three napkins and dental floss. It's unsurprising the show chooses to showcase Q's beauty in this way (there was uproar over sexy billboards used to promote the show earlier this summer, too), but fortunately Q's more than just a pretty face. Just not much more. She's certainly very plausible handling guns and kicking or punching bad guys, but it's a pity Nikita's hard shell doesn't crack at any point, and her character appears to be rather humorless. Obviously the show's tone doesn't allow for a huge amount of easy laughs, but there was definitely a feeling that Q's a little too frosty in the role. This meant it was actually easier to get involved with Alex's subplot, because Fonseca plays a far more appealing character and effortlessly elicits greater sympathy because of her predicament. It's hard to feel much emotion for Nikita as a rogue, because we can only speculate on how terrible her time with Division has been. There weren't even any flashbacks to help us -- just some dreadfully expositional moments when Nikita would explain things to audience proxy's like her foster father. Overall, this certainly wasn't a terrible pilot. The casting is surprisingly strong, Q looks as comfortable walking around in her underwear as she does smacking someone with a deck-chair, and Fonseca left a good impression (in fact, I think the show would have been better with her as the lead). It's just that the whole concept has been done to death, Q perhaps doesn't have much emotional range, and there were moments when the show devolved into stupidity -- bad guys letting Nikita walk past them in a narrow corridor because they're slightly distracted by other gunmen, Nikita apparently bringing a mannequin along with her to a graveyard to fool the baddies, etc. I'm unconvinced Nikita has anywhere interesting to go, or that it'll be worth jumping aboard for a ride I think I've already been on. Asides Xander Berkeley may be familiar to fans of 24, as he appeared in the first two seasons as George Mason, Head of CTU. Interestingly, the creators of 24 were also behind La Femme Nikita, which this show is essentially a quasi-sequel to. Lyndsey Fonseca will also be recognizable as a star of How I Met Your Mother and Desperate Housewives. She also starred as the love-interest in Kick-Ass.
WRITERS: David A. Levinson & Craig Silverstein DIRECTOR: Danny Cannon CAST: Maggie Q, Lyndsy Fonseca, Shane West, Aaron Stanford, Tiffany Hines, Melinds Clarke, Xander Berkeley, Ashton Holmes, Sebastien Roberts, Kristof Konrad & Manuel Urrego TRANSMISSION: 9 September 2010 €“ THE CW
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