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Wednesday, 3 of March of 2021

Nikita – “Pilot”

Karen and Noel throw down over Shane West--do you buy him?

As part of the new fall season coverage, we’re doing what we call audition reviews for new shows. An audition review doesn’t necessarily mean the show will enter the normal rotation, but it will provide an initial reaction to a new series. Especially in light of time shifting practices, we think this is a valuable way to read brief reviews on new series to help you decide if you want to watch the show. For those who watch it live, it’s a good way to begin a conversation about a new series. These reviews will typically be shorter than our regular reviews, and may include thoughts from more than one of our writers.

Nikita is out to bring down the shadowy government agency called Division, which stole 6 years of her life and (probably) killed the love of her life. In the now standard fit of assassin/spy seeking to destroy the ones who trained them, Division is having an awfully hard time getting to Nikita. Too bad she’s not having the same problems getting to them.

Noel’s Take

Nikita is a pretty solid entry into the assassin/spy show genre, but as with all pilots, it’s a bit weighed down by expo speak and the need to make sure the audience kind of has a sense of who everyone is and how they’re connected. This isn’t a bad thing (pilots are already judged on a curve after all), but it does prevent the episode from excelling beyond that.

I did enjoy it though. Maggie Q is, unsurprisingly, captivating in the role. She strikes a balance between toughness and vulnerability that I think is often missed in these types of roles. And it’s just the emotional vulnerability, but the acknowledgment of her skills and others. Her stutter step and surprise at seeing Roan in the hotel, her brief look of concern. There’s hints of layers to the performance and the character, that actually compel me to keep watching.

The rest of the cast is a little mixed. Shane West is still rather hard to take seriously in any role, so he may be the show’s weakest link. Aaron Stanford, who has aged flabbily since X3: The Last Stand (he was Pyro!), but still displays nice bits of the psychotic snark from that film in Birkhoff, Division’s tech guy. And Division as a whole is a bit off. The trainees seem to be the worst versions of boarding school stereotypes ever: pissy new girl, pissier old new girl, hunky but secretive upper classman. Even though the first one is Ted Mosby’s daughter (and talks like a “teen meth whore” and actually a mole in league with Nikita, a nice twist), I don’t have much of a bead on their abilities, nor do I find them all that interesting.

But Maggie Q’s performance and competently staged action sequences are enough for me to give it another few episodes.

Karen’s Take

As with my review of Vampire Diaries, spoilers abound.  You have been warned.

Man, I want to like this show.  I loved Alias.  I adore Angelina Jolie in her ass-kicking mode.   Maggie Q, the show’s lead, seems hot yet tough enough to pull of the role of a vengeful rogue spy.  And the surprise at the end of the episode was a good one.  But the cliches are killing me.  Some are cliches of television, broadly. And some are cliches of this genre.  Cliches can work–sometimes a genre piece imports every tried and true trick yet manages to find new life in them.  And other times, the cliches hit with a thud, ripping the energy from a series.  In no particular order, here are my primary concerns.

1) A dead former lover?  Really?  And now she’s pissed cause she still misses him?  This worked on Alias not because I cared about the relationship but because Jennifer Garner really sold it in the scene where she found Danny dead.  (Note: the show must be aware of the comparison because both dead lovers share the same name, Daniel.) Garner’s devastation is what made me care.

On this program, we get two scenes involving the dead lover.  In a flashback, the program references the most impossible of moments to deliver with any sincerity–the engagement scene.  Note to show runners: if I don’t know or care about this couple, an engagement scene is impossible to belief.  Look, they are in bed and he surprises her with a ring!  I’m supposed to say, “aw,” or feel tingly, or something.  I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to care. And then she hits him because the writers know it is a cliche and are trying to lessen the thud.  It didn’t work.

In the second scene, she visits the cemetery and leaves the ring on his tombstone.  All I could think was, man, some grieving person or grave robber is going to be psyched to find and hock that ring.  Who would leave a ring on a tombstone like that?  With the body in the casket?  Maybe.  But on the tombstone?  I cry foul.

So this device of the dead lover, despite the program’s best efforts, left me cold.  For further evidence, read aloud this line and tell me if you can believe a single moment of it: “Promise me its not a dream that I’m gonna wake up from tomorrow…” Puke.

2) We suffer through the flashback with the dead lover but don’t get what is arguably the more interesting backstory?  As in, how she got that incredible loft apartment, where she found those elegant dresses, and how she bought all those cool guns.  Let’s see her transformation from grief to awesome.  I guess some of that stuff may come, and the show wants there to be a mystery about how she is running this operation (more about that below), but I need something to help me know this character–to see her struggle.

Instead, we get the backstory that Nikita had a shitty foster father, ran away, did drugs, and then became a spy.  Telling me does very little to make me care, show runners.  How about showing me some of her trials, so I can root for her?

3) Where’s the bad guy?  The appropriate foil?  The one person that can challenge her?  No, Michael does not count.  We get Percy–a man whom I presumes run Division O, aka SD6, rogue intelligence agency.  Sloane was great on Alias because he had a…you guessed it…a backstory with Sydney.  What is Nikita’s relationship with Percy?  Who is he and what motivates him?  Nada.  We learn nothing about him.  Again, these secrets may be revealed, but without them, the premiere becomes more flash than substance.

4) How absurd are they willing to let these operations be?   In the premiere, Nikita rescues the general/leader of an oil-rich but war-torn country.  She does so by zapping him unconscious and getting him out of the hotel on a stretcher.  Really?  She outruns everyone else with an unconscious guy on wheels to worry about?  This plan seems a bit weak.  Why not let her have to convince him that she can help him? Why not see her be smart as well as hot? Ah, well….

And then there are the cliches.  When threatened by Percy at a glamorous party, Nikita pulls out her compact to spot all the agents on call in the reflection of the mirror.  Percy, it seems, has never seen this trick.  Well, guess what?  We in the audience sure have.  Then she pulls out her lipstick–no, it is not lipstick, it is a detonator–never seen that trick before.  Oh, wait, I sure have.  Has Percy never seen a freakin’ Bond movie?  What kind of spy is he, anyway?

So I’m worried about Nikita.  But here are things that will make me watch episode 2.

1) Call me crazy, but I like Shane West.  Yes, it is because I have a secret, shameful passion for that movie he did with Mandy Moore, A Walk to Remember.  But I even watched a few episodes of ER to see him on it.  I think he’s sort of charming.  And he’s not really attractive, yet is somehow attractive.  He intrigues me.  As Michael, he has internal struggle.  And it better be based on more than lust for Nikita.  He seems to care about his charges, and that could make him more interesting.

2) Melinda Clarke!  From The O.C. and Vampire Diaries!  I am so glad the CW knows a super hot older (she’s not very old) woman when they see one.  Now, here we could have something interesting.  I need to know more about her relationship with Nikita (right now, we know nothing).  Every female super spy needs a great female foil.  Clarke’s character could be it.  Let’s hope they develop her.

3) There is feminist potential here.

*Clarke tells new agent, Alex, “you don’t have to be hard to survive.  Sometimes vulnerability can be our greatest weapon.”  Okay, tad cliche.  But if the program follows through with it and examines a female aesthetic of power and action, this could get interesting (note: this scenario still depends on a strict gender division, but you can’t win them all).

*”You’re gonna have to kill your way through a lot of people you know.”  This line isn’t so much feminist as it is intriguing.  He’ s noting that emotion can be a liability.  Let’s see Nikita turn that around and make it a strength, perhaps.

*Nikita has a trainee.  This is hands down the most interesting part of the show.  And offers the most potential for development.  Hope they do more with it than simply parlay it into an additional touch of suspense to each mission.

*Percy is convinced someone is “running” Nikita–that she cannot on her own plan and execute a mission.  Let’s hope he’s wrong.  I’d like to see Nikita’s goal of revenge develop into something more, something deeper.  An awareness of the world.  Of her place within it.  Of her power to change and influence people in high places.  Could make her a useful citizen.

Or this could just be a flashy series without substance.  Jury is still out.

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