September 9th, 2010
As far as world-building goes, The CW’s Nikita is comfortable remaining in familiar territory: shadowy “government” organizations working under the guise of national security while in fact engaging in nefarious activities was something that Alias and Dollhouse both dealt with pretty extensively. We’ve seen shows about spies before, and nothing Nikita offers in that department is particularly new (especially when you consider that it’s a reboot of a television show which was based on a movie, but since I’ve seen little of either I’m more likely to think in terms of other series).
The difference, I would argue, is where we join this particular story: rather than starting at the beginning, we jump in at a point where our protagonist is on the outside looking in, seeking revenge against those who wronged her rather than experiencing those wrongs herself. It is, as I note, a familiar story (Alias did something remarkably similar), but by joining at this particular point the show skips over the emotional wringer and focuses on the flashier, more dynamic parts of this story. The result, to some degree, is a lack of depth in the show’s characters, as everything we learn is done through exposition or flashback rather than experiencing it in real time; however, simultaneously, joining at this point gives the show a much clearer sense of what kind of structure it will take on for the future, allowing the pilot to function as any good pilot should.
It also means that it had no real chance of being great, but I don’t think anything here indicates that the should couldn’t get there if given the time and a push in the right direction.
This is very much the sort of Pilot that I think Dollhouse needed in order for it to be a success. I won’t go into spoilers for anyone who plans on going back to Joss Whedon’s two-season series, but that show began with a shadowy organization with questionably morality and someone on the outside who was going to bring it down. However, that someone was an FBI agent who had no idea what he was getting himself into, and the show sort of had him tiptoe around the situation for much of the first season – he didn’t have any sort of personal vendetta, he was just an external threat to their operations.
I think Dollhouse eventually figured out how to reconcile those worlds, but in its initial premise there was no real tension, and I wonder if it wouldn’t have gotten off to a better start if there hadn’t been a former doll threatening to attack from the outside from the very beginning (as Dollhouse viewers would note, such a character eventually emerges). It’s a definite shortcut, but it does sort of give you the opportunity to have someone crystallize many of the issues surrounding the central organization, and I think it’s a key element of what makes Nikita’s pilot work: because she is on the outside fighting against that organization, rather than on the inside just starting to struggle against their authority, the key conflict is established quickly and easily.
There are, of course, other ways to accomplish such goals: the Alias pilot, for example, had the audience learn alongside Sydney regarding her employers’ evildoings, allowing us to step into Jennifer Garner’s shoes and relate with her emotions throughout that circumstance. This approach works, but it takes time, and it’s clear that Nikita isn’t a show that wants to waste time on such things. It wants to get to the point it gets to at the end of the episode, which is Nikita on the outside disrupting the Division operations with young Alex as her inside girl. They could have strung out the mystery of Nikita’s contact for multiple episodes, just as they could have left it more vague in regards to Shane West’s character’s opinion on the whole issue. Instead, they explain that it’s really Percy who is evil as opposed to the rest of the organization, which gives us hope that Nikita’s goal of change is possible without paving a clear path for her success. That’s not particularly enlightening writing, but it’s smart in terms of getting us to the point where we can construct future episodes of the show in our head: Division is given a mission, Alex gives information to Nikita, Nikita tries to disrupt the mission, etc.
I don’t necessarily think this is a show I need to watch: Maggie Q is well-cast, Melinda Clarke is someone I’d watch in anything, and Xander Berkeley nicely fits the bill for Percy, but there is nothing here that I feel I haven’t seen before in a structure which I found more interesting (this includes Dollhouse, which despite its slow start was interested in far more complex issues). The show is attractive in more ways than one, but I don’t think that “interesting” is a word I would use to describe it. I like the idea that the show exists for those who really need an action fix, and it certainly runs laps stylistically around Covert Affairs in terms of “2010 Spy Shows with Female Leads,” but on the busiest night in primetime the show just isn’t doing enough to capture my attention.
But since nothing else starts this early in the year, chances are I’ll tune in for next Thursday’s episode to see where they plan on taking the show next. I’m curious to see how they balance between Nikita and Alex, and what kind of story they plan on introducing for the latter – will she begin to show signs of a sort of Stockholm syndrome and connect with her captors and fellow captives, or will the show play up the danger of her position and constantly place her in situations where her identity could be revealed? While Nikita’s path is quite obvious, hers is not, and considering how much of the regular cast are part of Division it will be interesting to see where that balance lies. These aren’t questions I’m dying to see the answer to, but I think the show has some interesting options structurally, and I’ll give it a week (and then perhaps an occasional viewing should my Twitter feed decide that the show tried something particularly remarkable) to see what they do with it.
- A lot of people are picking on Shane West, either for his purposefully deep voice or his failed attempt at a beard, but I wouldn’t say he is particularly “miscast.” I think the bigger problem is that the role is really underwritten, in that we learn about his actions without gaining any real context into who he is as a human being. A slightly less action-packed flashback to his time with Nikita might have helped in this department, so I feel like I can’t judge his casting until the script asks him to play a character.
- Lyndsy Fonseca doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but she seems well enough suited to the role – plus, she also filmed Kick-Ass in Toronto unless I’m mistaken, so she’s used to the city.
- Nice to see Ashton Holmes, who played Sid Phillips in The Pacific, pop in as Tom the new recruit – I’m going to presume that he’s not returning, since he was only listed as a guest star (which makes me feel this was a pilot role that wasn’t picked up as a regular), but still nice to see him.
- Similarly, had a CanCon moment – the show films in Toronto – when David Ferry, who plays Fern on the great Dan for Mayor, appeared as Nikita’s foster father.
- I missed Melinda Clarke – that is all.
- As always, curious to know what anyone else who watched thought about it, and whether you’re going to continue watching.