Review: 'Nikita' on the CW
As consumers of popular culture, we all have our blind spots and biases - certain kinds of stories we aren’t interested in under any circumstances due to the subject matter, no matter how much we might like it in spite of that.
“Friday Night Lights” has struggled for years to get an audience, in part because many of the people who would enjoy the show’s nuanced characterization and commentary on small-town life want no part of a show about high school football. Fienberg refused for years to watch “The Shield” because he doesn’t like cop shows. One of my favorite blogs, A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, had a discussion the other day prompted by one of its writers saying he didn’t care how good everyone said “Sons of Anarchy” was, “I just can't get past the fact that I'm not interested in watching a show about a motorcycle club.”
It happens. Sometimes people will look past their blind spots - Dan eventually watched, and loved, “The Shield” after being badgered about it for years - and sometimes they won’t.
And sometimes blind spots aren’t inherent, but are developed over time, as I realized when I sat down to watch the CW’s new spy drama “Nikita,” which debuts tomorrow at 9 p.m.
“Nikita” is the latest iteration of Luc Besson’s 1990 French thriller “La Femme Nikita,” starring Annie Parillaud as a young female convict recruited by the government to become an assassin. Bridget Fonda starred in a 1993 American remake, “Point of No Return,” and then Peta Wilson played Nikita in a TV version of “La Femme Nikita” that ran for five seasons at the turn of the millennium on USA.
I’ve seen both films, and watched the show off and on for its first few years. I’ve also seen the very “Nikita”-esque “Alias,” and watched a good chunk of the run of “24,” whose creative team worked on the USA “Nikita.” I’ve seen variations on these themes for close to 20 years now, and as I watched the new “Nikita” pilot, I decided I had seen enough - even though, on its own merits, it’s one of the better debut episodes of any new show premiering this fall.
The Nikita in this version is played by Maggie Q, an American-born star of Hong Kong action films who’s popped up in a few big American films of the last few years. (One of those, “Mission: Impossible III,” was co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, who had previously created “Alias,” as the wheel spins round and round.) Q is so small and thin that it looks like a light breeze could knock her over, yet she carries herself in a way that makes it believable she could be a hard-core killer, and she has the requisite dramatic chops and charisma for the part.
The twist of the new series is that it isn’t starting over from scratch. Here, it’s been six years since Nikita was recruited by the shadowy “Division” - and three years since she escaped its clutches to live free and easy. Now her goal is to take down Division from the outside, and to rescue all the baby-faced would-be killers before they have to do all the terrible things she did.
The pilot, written by David Levinson and Craig Silverstein, gets to have its cake and eat it, too by introducing a new recruit, Alex, played by Lindsy Fonseca (you might recognize her as Ted’s future daughter on “How I Met Your Mother,” among other roles). Through Alex, we get to see exactly how someone like Nikita might have been found and cultivated - taught how to fight, but also taught (by Melinda Clarke, haughty and fun as always) how to be proper, sexy lady so no one would ever suspect her of coming to kill them. So we get the classic “Nikita” story even as Nikita herself has moved beyond it.
Danny Cannon, a go-to pilot director ever since he helmed the “CSI” debut a decade ago, does the expected fine job with the action and building the look of this world, and he gets good performances out of Q, Fonseca, Clarke and Xander Berkeley as the Division boss. (Berkely was also the boss on “24” for a while, before getting the best death in the history of that show.) Shane West is a bit iffier as Nikita’s former handler, who’s been sent to hunt her down - the show seems to think he’s a lot more dangerous than I do - but the cast around him (including Aaron Stanford as the tech guy) is very solid.
I’m just feeling burnt-out on this kind of show - not just “Nikita” remakes themselves, but dark and brooding spy series with complex mythologies and constant double-crosses - and it would take an extraordinary level of execution to make me care again, in the same way that Dan was sucked in by “The Shield” once he finally agreed to watch it. (That, or a twist on the familiar, like the comedy of "Chuck.") And “Nikita” is good, but it’s not transcendent - a B when I would need an A or A+ to care again.
That’s on me more than it’s on “Nikita,” but given its pedigree, and its timeslot (within a few weeks, it’ll compete with new episodes of “The Office,” “CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Fringe”), I suspect the pilot will be the only episode of it I watch for a very long time. Your mileage will obviously vary.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com