The holiday season is a time of awkward run-ins – with television shows. You know, the ones you know a little something about that pop up on your Netflix or Hulu every so often, begging to be watched? It’s a bit pathetic, really – like some old high school classmate promoting him or herself when you happen to run into them at the grocery store. But the thing is: sometimes, that old high school classmate is actually more interesting than you ever gave them credit for, and, sometimes, that show that has been begging you to watch it for the past year or so? It’s actually good…
This is what happened with Nikita. I can’t tell you the thought process that led to my giving this show a chance – perhaps it was the easy promises of the CW or my general weakness for the spy genre. It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad it happened. Nikita’s premise is familiar: spy-turned-rogue fights to bring down the very organization that created her. In this case, that agency is Division, a shady branch of the government that has spiraled out of control under the leadership of power-hungry Percy (played with just the right amount of gleeful calculation by 24’s Xander Berkeley). Seeking vengeance for the murder of her fiancé, as well as redemption for the sins she committed as a government-sanctioned assassin, Nikita (played with surprising depth by action star Maggie Q) hatches a plan to infiltrate and take down the organization.
This show isn’t doing anything new – it’s the third incarnation of the Nikita story alone (preceded by the Luc Besson film of the ‘80s and a Canadian television series in the ‘90s) – but it is doing it well. From the very first episode, it keeps the twists and turns coming while never forgetting the characters, making frequent use of the flashback to flesh out their backstories.
1. The Familiar Faces: Supporting the fast-paced storytelling is a cast of “hey, it’s that guy/girl” who really ground the story. Three of my favorites hold down the fort at Division. The aforementioned Berkeley, as well as Melinda Clark of The O.C. fame (and, in the role that gained her considerable ground in my book, a guest spot as Inara’s companion/Madame friend on Firefly), and Aaron Stanford, who played Pyro in X-Men United (my favorite installment of the X-Men movie series). Stanford, as Seymour Birkhoff, plays the nerdy computer genius who seems more involved with Divison for the hacking challenges it offers than part of the power struggle.
On the hulky hero side of things, we have two movie star washouts (too harsh?) in Shane West and Devon Sawa. West is perhaps best known for his confused bad-boy role in A Walk to Remember in which he falls in love and marries a dying Mandy Moore (spoiler alert!) or for his part as brooding teenage son Blank in television series Once and Again. In Nikita, West plays Michael, Percy’s right-hand man with a conscious, who also happens to have trained Nikita. Tortured romance and gunfights ensue.
Sawa plays Owen Elliot, a recurring character, and, when we meet him, another of Percy’s pawns. You may recognize Sawa from his roles in Wild America or Final Destination (the first one…way back when), or as the corporeal form of Casper the Friendly Ghost – he will always be Casper to me.
2. The nostalgia: No, I am not talking about any of the previous Nikita incarnations (which I have not yet seen), but rather some of my favorite series that are gone, but not forgotten. The most obvious parallels for me can be drawn between Nikita and Alias. Like Sydney, Nikita is avenging her fiancé – a man who she wanted to run away with but is killed for knowing too much. The two characters use similar tactics to get into and out of precarious situations, and they are the best at what they do. They also both have a desire to get out of the spy/assassin business and to lead a “normal” life, but feel they are unable to do so until they have completed their mission. I could go on for pages about the similarities between these two shows, but I will stop here. Suffice to say, Nikita has done the best job yet of filling the Alias-shaped hole in my heart.
Other not-so-spot-on parallels can be drawn between Nikita and Dollhouse. Division is an underground base where young, attractive recruits must stay until graduating to agent status. They are reshaped and given a second lease on life while those who control their fates watch from slightly above. In Birkhoff, we even have a Topher-like goofy genius who begins to question his role in the nefarious operation. Many of the similarities may be superficial, but they are there – at least enough for my heart to pang for a few more episodes of even the dreariest of Dollhouse days.
3. The leading ladies: Maybe it is ironic that, in coming into this series, the two actors I recognized the least from other work were the leads. Not having watched many kung-fu flicks, I did not know Maggie Q. She has an interesting history, however, apparently having hopped a plane to Hong Kong fresh out of high school to break into the film and modeling business there without knowing a word of Chinese. The show hinges around this characters, and Q brings a grace and vulnerability to the role that really makes it all work. I have to suspend disbelief just a bit to accept that a 90-pound woman is beating up goons more than twice her size, but you never know. And all is forgiven in the quieter moments during which Q really sells Nikita’s inner conflict over how much of her dark past as an assassin was her fault, and how much was Division’s.
Lyndsey Fonseca plays Alex, the other gorgeous gal kicking ass and taking names on Nikita. Fonseca has managed to appear in quite a bit despite her age – snagging recurring roles in Desperate Housewives and Big Love, among other things – before landing a leading role in Nikita. I recognized her as one of the Mosby children being told the continuing saga of “How I Met Your Mother.” Like Q, Fonseca also has the emotional range necessary to play the tough-yet-vulnerable girl convincingly. More times than not, the ever-changing relationship between Alex and Nikita is the most interesting part of the show. At times, mentor-mentee, mother-daughter, sister-sister , at others, nemeses, the parallels between these two complex characters and the lengths they will go to correct the wrongs of their pasts is what makes this show truly shine.
* Intrigued? Check out this scene from the later half of the first season. It shows a conversation between Nikita and CIA agent ally Ryan Fletcher, and is a good example of the internal conflict raging within Nikita about how far she will go to take down Division, and her own role in the agency’s troubling actions.