Sunday, September 17, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: La Femme Nikita

The mid-'90s were a great time for girl warriors. In 1995 a one-shot "Hercules" villain became the star of her own show, and epitomized the pre-medieval female fighter (in your face, Red Sonja!); a year later, Joss Whedon introduced a new kind of modern heroine while raising standards of quality for television; and in 1997, a little-known film called "La Femme Nikita" was adapted into an ongoing series. I'm not acquainted with the source material, so I can't speak to issues of authenticity, but I'm left with very strong feelings towards the show. I'll start by focusing on the first two seasons, which I feel were the strongest.

One thing that stood out was the high level of sophisication: practically every episode had plot twists galore and difficult moral quandaries for our protagonist. The overall plot of the series concerns Nikita, a former street rat framed for murder who is recruited by a covert anti-terrorist organization. This organization, Section One, does its very best to turn Nikita into a merciless killing machine, only to find her stubbornly clinging to her humanity. Naturally, this results in an endless series of problems, as Nikita struggles to avoid being "cancelled" while staying true to her moral values.

The nice thing is that, during those initial seasons, you're not really called upon to pick a side and stick with it. Section One espouses the rhetoric of sacrifice for the greater good - Nikita often finds their tactics deplorable, but is she right to weigh two lives against a thousand? It's an issue both sides of the equation struggle with, and most episodes end on an ambivalent note that lets the viewer come to independent conclusions.

Most of the characters are as complex as the plots. Aside from Nikita's internal and external conflicts, we have Michael, her trainer-turned-love-interest, whose tenure at Section has repressed his emotions to near-nonexistence. I do think the series lost something when the chemistry between Nikita and Michael progressed into actual intimacy - it turned the relationship into an on-again/off-again thing, and then it became the crux of the entire third/fourth season arc. When everyone from arch-terrorists to your bosses to your bosses' bosses are concerned with your love life, it's time to go.

We also have the rest of the "main" Section cast: Walter and Birkoff, a pair of loveable supporting characters whose inherent charm brightens up the otherwise-dreary Section life; Madeline, the enigmatic Chief Strategist whose function overwent a radical shift in the middle of the first season (she went from being a propwoman to head profiler/interrogator for Section); and Operations, the man running the show, a ruthless yet hypocritical figure who denies his operatives the freedoms he himself indulges in. It's a diverse and fascinating bunch, especially when it's not All About Michita. Special mention goes to Adrian, founder of Section One, played exquisitely by Sian Philips. We only see her for a very short time, but she makes quite an impression.

As far as acting is concerned, it's a bit of a mixed bag: Peta Wilson does well enough as Nikita, in terms of the soul-rending decisions she has to make, but to paraphrase Bunny Swan, "she looka like a man". Six-foot-something with a deep baritone, and I can't help flashing back to that scene in "Tootsie" where Dustin Hoffman tells the director "you want some gross caricature of a woman, to prove some idiotic point that power makes a woman masculine." Still, she does all right. I'm slightly less impressed with Roy Dupuis (Michael), because the guy has maybe two facial expressions per season. And while it's all well and good to depict a character as emotionally hollow, it runs the risk of being monotonous after a while. It doesn't help that Michael-in-love doesn't act any different than Michael-not-in-love, so it's almost impossible to know where this guy stands. Conversely, Alberta Watson (Madeline) has the same stone-faced delivery, but at least she has the sense to occasionally offer a tiny smile or a hateful glare, the effect of which is all the more magnified by her usual composure, and it makes her an infinitely more interesting character because you're always looking to see what slips through the cracks in her armor. The others are above-average.

Of course, all this largely revolves around the first two seasons, it goes way downhill after that. For some reason, the series was reconfigured as a melodrama: Michael's married with a kid! Nikita's falling in love with someone else! Birkoff has a twin brother! Operations is blackmailing Madeline!

To make things worse, the technology started crossing the border from science to science-fiction. I mean, in the first two seasons, encountering a brainwashing device is a big deal - we see traces and hints of future-tech, but it's always depicted as a major breakthrough. By the time the third season came to a close (and certainly by the fourth) we had holograms, clones, psychics and goddamn voodoo love potions, all a little too commonplace for my tastes. And naturally, most of these devices were employed to either help or stop Michael and Nikita's relationship, because the fate of the free world is secondary to two anti-terrorist people getting freaky with each other. On top of that, the usual plot twists became so numerous and predictable that after a certain point, you already knew they were coming.

Lest I forget, this series is sadly included in the B.O.D. Club, for series that were Better Off Dead. Apparently, after the appalling fourth-season finale which retconned the last three years of storylines in a manner only slightly less insulting than Bobby Ewing's shower, fans rallied for a fifth season. And if ever there was a case of "be careful what you wish for", this is it, because the fifth and final season starts bad and ends worse, with lots of "shocking" character deaths and meaningless twists and turns.

Still... it had two really fantastic and strong seasons, and later decreases in quality don't change that fact.

A final note: "La Femme Nikita" makes for an interesting comparison to "Alias" in several respects. I think Sydney Bristow is supposed to be a more feminine response to the "butch" Nikita, though in practice this means Sydney gets the shit beaten out of her on a regular basis. And even at its worst, the twists on LFN still made some kind of rudimentary sense - if you can figure out "Alias", you're in a better position than J.J. Abrams.