Series Premiere: Nikita – “Pilot”


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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.


Filed under Nikita

6 responses to “Series Premiere: Nikita – “Pilot”

  1. Tausif Khan

    “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.”

    To me this is an unfair description of Dollhouse. Whedon is always interested in power but not from a structural perspective (government conspiracy) per say. The network asked Whedon to add in the Rossum story line. The original pilot has Ballard into the Dollhouse within the episode. He is interested in identity that is what drove Dollhouse. He is interested in its fluidity and how that affects the understanding of how some one loses power and becomes overwhelmed when they abuse power. He wanted to bring this out in character interactions on client/doll basis. This would have allowed him to explore not only the client fantasy but also the fantasy of losing oneself and running away from expressing who you are. This dynamic is inherently about power because it immediately opens up the structural problems of gender, personal agency and commerce. This is where Whedon wanted to go. It really had nothing to do with government conspiracy and the structures of the state.

    • Tausif Khan

      It is at this point where I believe you said on Twitter “I will get to the Dollhouse review as soon as I pick up the pieces of my brain off the floor.” Whedon’s questioning of societal structures and how they are shape and shaped by power are what makes his shows so intriguing.

  2. Aeryl

    Yay! Another show I watch that you do(since I don’t watch much TV, I’m pretty much limited to your Buffy/Angel reviews. If you start watching Bones, you’ll see more of me!)

    I enjoyed it, as far as kickass action on TV goes. It probably won’t be as insightful and exploratory as Dollhouse and Buffy were(people forget how wild Buffy was when it was first airing, since we are so used to the tropes that Joss introduced with that show, now).

    The other attempts to tell this same story(Point of No Return, the movie, and La Femme Nikita, the USA Network TV Show, both of which I’ve watched) always started with telling us how Nikita was pulled into the Division. I like that they skipped over that part, and instead are giving us the parallel of Alex’s “journey” instead, though we find out it’s more complex than that. But it allows the show to demonstrate the parallels between what Alex learns, and what Nikita does(I’m thinking particularly of the “Sometime vulnerability can be your strength” segment, where Nikita lures the Division to the grave of her fiance, so she can kidnap Pyro from the X-Men). That is much more interesting that an entire episode or two of Nikita “learning” how to be beautiful, and to fight, and then get tricked into her first assassination, IMO.

    And I think the exploration of the inner workings of the Division, is an idea they pulled directly from Dollhouse, cuz IIRC, all you usually saw in the previous incarnations, was Nikita, her handler, Amanda, a support person or two, and of course, they evil head of the organization.

    The La Femme Nikita show was an early forerunner to Alias, IMO, as you later discover Nikita is personally connected to the people behind the Division, and devolved into more soap than anything. With this introduction it looks like they are trying to avoid that trap(and that never made sense to me in LFN anyways, so that’s a good thing). I could have done with a little more ambiguity about Michael’s motivations too. I enjoy wondering, “Did he shoot her and she survive, or is he helping her?” And I was convinced that she’d actually turned Pyro(can’t remember his name, other than Nerd), so I was totally thrown by the reveal. For pacing reasons alone, I would have waited an episode or two, never mind allowing viewers to probe the mystery, but it seems they want to focus on bringing us to the action immediately, which, being an action fan, I can’t really complain about.

    • Aeryl

      Oh, and was it just me, or was Shane West trying real hard to look like Olyphant-astic? Maybe I’m just seeing it, b/c that was the last guy Maggie Q played opposite of, but it just seemed like he was going for that look he has in “Justified”.

      Another comment said he was trying out Bale’s Batman voice, but not having seen West in anything else, I have no clue what he sounds like.

  3. katie

    Perhaps I am burned out after the slew of spy shows with a female protagonist, but I really didn’t find Nikita (or the lead actress, who seems to do well in fight scenes but is lacking charisma/intrigue otherwise) to be anything special at all. I made a point to watch it based on it being one of the more recommended new shows to watch from a bunch of critics, but having watched it, I wonder just how bad this year’s batch new shows are.

  4. Abe

    I’ll definitely be watching. It’s possible that it won’t maintain the level of quality it had (I liked it considerably more than you did: We’ll see after tonight’s episode, I guess. While you can’t say that many things the CW does are smart, I would posit that premiering their two new shows way before the rest of the networks was a good plan, because it gives each of those shows two full weeks to be the only thing on critics’ radar before getting drowned out by other stuff.

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