Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The CW's Nikita is Stylish, Sexy, and Soulless

When considering how to approach the CW's new action television series Nikita, I reminded myself of a couple of my core rules to follow when reviewing works of entertainment. In this case, I wanted to make sure that I followed rules #2 and #7. I find that having certain principles of review ensures that a review is as fair as possible to those who made the effort to produce an entertaining product. Making an entertainment product requires a lot of work, and those working on the products do so because they want to entertain the public.

So what are rules #2 and #7 and what are some examples of them in application?

Rule #2 -- When reviewing a property that has been translated from one medium to another, it is only fair to compare the property to the source material as far as the property relates itself to the original.

An intellectual property that perfectly exemplifies the importance of rule #2 is Frank Herbert's Dune series of books. If one were to compare David Lynch's version of Dune to the novel one would find numerous differences and omissions, but that would be a disservice to Lynch's brilliance in the film. Lynch's Dune isn't a translation of the novel adapted to the big screen. Instead, it is a story inspired by the book that attempts to tell a similar story through a different medium. It approaches the central conflicts of Herbert's SF masterpiece and builds a film narrative structure around it. It also uses the strengths of the different medium to add new levels of spectacle to the property. One should judge Lynch's work apart from Herbert's because it departs widely from the original property.

The several Syfy series based on Dune, which claim to be "faithful" adaptations, should be scrutinized heavily due to their claims of fidelity. In fact, the failure to live up to the claims of fidelity -- followed by the invention of lame filler narrative -- is one of the chief flaws of the Syfy versions of Dune. The others are low production values and poorly choreographed melee combat (inexcusable in the post HK New Wave era).

Rule #7 -- Never judge a new television show purely upon its pilot episode.

Pilot episodes are often clumsy and the actors frequently have yet to build the chemistry that will make a series worth watching week after week. If one were to look only at Star Trek's original pilot, one would wonder how the show ever got picked up by a network in the first place. The concept is solid, but the execution is awkward -- something I often call "pilotitis." Additionally, the first episode shown may not even be the first episode "narratively." When Fox released Firefly, they showed a middle episode as the pilot and viewers where left without any context for the "universe" they were experiencing. As any Browncoat can tell you, this was a shame because viewers missed out on what ended up being a great ride.

I waited to review CW's Nikita for these very reasons. First, I had to judge just how closely they were associating the property with the original Luc Besson film, then I wanted to see if the show's quality improved or declined in the second (and eventually subsequent) episode.

From the advertising posters to the opening scene of the pilot episode, it is clear that Craig Silverstein and crew are making deep associations with the original film. Both posters show Nikita in a similar pose, and both properties begin with the robbery of a drug store for pharmaceuticals. This association continues in the second episode when Nikita's protege Alex is given "two weeks to improve" before the Division decides to "eliminate" her, the identical raising of stakes Nikita faced in the film.

It should be noted that the new Nikita isn't attempting to be a remake by any means, rather it is striving to be a sequel. It is a "what happened next" story that is using the original as a jumping board. This would typically make it a heavy candidate for rule #2 suspension of disbelief, except for the numerous overt parallels between this series and the original. Since it isn't a direct remake the show doesn't deserve "strict scrutiny," but it does deserve "close scrutiny" because it keeps reminding me of its relation to the original property.

So how is CW's Nikita in light of this level of comparison, and how is it in its own right?

Maggie Q is sexy and powerful in her portrayal of an expert assassin who seeks revenge against the organization that did her wrong, but she's too sexy and too competent. Anne Parillaud was vulnerable and sympathetic. She was a fish out of water, who we cared for in spite of the terrible things she does in the first scene of the film. It's easy to like Maggie Q, but it isn't easy to empathize with her. She's too glossy, too strong, too competent -- except when she inexplicably isn't.

The closest parallel to Parillaud's Nikita is Lyndsy Fonseca's Alex character. Fonseca's performance often demonstrates the vulnerability and humanity of the Parillaud version, but these moments are undermined when the show's "twist" is revealed. Alex suddenly becomes less vulnerable and become an instrument of revenge -- losing some of her humanity in the process.

Allow me to elaborate.

Besson's Nikita opens with an amazing image. Four drug addled youths are walking brazenly through the late night streets of Paris. One of these addicts is carrying an axe and dragging a body behind him. It's a disturbing image that plays off of the classic heroic introduction in The Right Stuff with an ironic twist. These young people are attempting to break into a drug store to get a fix, and as it turns out the drug store is owned and operated by the father of one of the youths. There is a touching scene where a father recognizes his child, and is saddened and horrified by what he sees. The tension and sorrow are palpable. Eventually, it almost seems as if everything is going to turn out okay and deescalate when the police arrive and the scene explodes in gun fire. The first two casualties are the father and son, then all of the youth save Nikita who had been curled up under a desk suffering from withdrawal symptoms. A policeman sees this young woman, attempts to gently help her out of the store and is coldly murdered by her. Her addiction has eliminated her humanity. The rest of the film is about -- among other things -- her rediscovering her humanity.

It is a sad story that constantly keeps the audience worried about the protagonist. We forgive her murders because we see her desperation and vulnerability. Besson makes us care about the killer from the first two minutes.

One of the perfect demonstrations of this vulnerability is expressed in the movie poster.



While Nikita is dressed in a sexually appealing outfit, high heels and all, what immediately registers with the viewer is fear and vulnerability.  She is in a near fetal position.  She is gripping the gun with two hands, and her eyes gaze worriedly off camera at some unseen threat. The viewer is interested in the character because the viewer is worried about her safety and we wonder what it is that she is looking off camera for. Who or what is just off the screen?

In contrast, the new Nikita opens in media res with a robbery of a drug store taking place in mid-action. The robbers are both wearing masks -- one bunny and one pig -- dehumanizing the criminals from moment one. Our first view of Alex, and we later discover Nikita, is as inhuman mask wearing figures. This sharply lessens our ability to empathize with them as vulnerable characters. The bunny mask is captured after the pig mask murders someone on site. The "innocent" bunny is unmasked and we first see the face of Alex, who will be our Alice in the rabbit hole that is Division. Where Besson knew that he could get us to sympathize with a murderer Silverstein makes sure that the new recruit is seen to be "in the wrong place at the wrong time" and doesn't trust the audience can be empathetic. We meet Alex, the "next" Nikita in this scene.

Then we are introduced to Nikita herself, the stylish and sexy Maggie Q. Through voice over and flashback we are given her back story and informed that she intends to get revenge against Division for them killing the man she loved. This is all presented pro forma, its just enough to set up the situation but lacks any emotional weight.

As the story unfolds we are introduced to Michael (Shane West), the "Bob" (Tchéky Karyo), of the series. West's performance isn't as subtle as Karyo's, but it is strong and gets better as the show progresses and his character is given more dramatic conflicts to resolve. Michael and Alex, along with Amanda (Melinda Clarke), are very compelling components in the show. They have a "realism" that is lacking in the almost superhuman confidence of the Maggie Q Nikita. Though the Michael/Alex relationship once more highlights the lack of heart in the television series.

In a scene that parallel's the movie, Michael informs Alex that she has two weeks to improve in training or she will be eliminated. This scene comes after Michael has saved Alex's life -- nominally -- and Michael notifies Alex just as she is about to thank him. It is a scene that works well as Michael is simultaneously asserting that he will not allow himself to become personally involved with a trainee (again), but that he does feel vulnerable in Alex's presence. The scene is good, but is shallow when contrasted to a similar scene in Besson's film.

In the film, Nikita has been acting out upon being forbidden from leaving the training facility. She has frightened the techie, bitten the ear off the judo instructor, danced in celebration of biting off the ear, and painted graffiti all over her room. "Bob" has been notified that she has two weeks to improve or Division will kill her. He enters her room with a birthday cake and a gift -- a poster of Degas' The Star.


He cuts her a piece of cake -- with a switchblade -- and tells her that she is only excelling in painting and dance. He is referring to the graffiti and the dance of humiliation she did earlier, which are demonstrations of her individuality and humanity that he appreciates. The Degas painting's portrayal of dance and the individual amplifies this association. He gives her a brief moment of celebration and kindness, and then drops the bomb that she has only two weeks to live if she doesn't improve. It is a powerful scene. It has a weight entirely lacking in television show.

Throughout the first two episodes Nikita attempts to undermine the actions of Division, but she soon discovers that not all who oppose Division are her allies. Maggie Q's Nikita is continually shown as powerful, competent, and sexy -- with one moment of almost farcical incompetence in the second episode in a "sniper" scene. Since the show is using Alex as the proxy "film Nikita," Maggie Q's Nikita is almost the direct opposite of Parillaud's. A quick cheat for what I am referring to is the marketing poster for the new series. Look at how it parallels and differs from the original film poster.






Here Nikita is holding two guns, one in each hand, and has a spare sub-machine gun at her feet.  She is lounging sensually in a chair holding her pistol with one hand and looking at the viewer with confidence and authority. The background is sharp and red, as opposed to foggy and blue. This is the image of a ruthless and attractive killer and not a vulnerable and sympathetic fish out of water. If it weren't for the way that the poster, and show, reference the original as they simultaneously reject it, I wouldn't make note of it. But the fact is that they are constantly referencing the original, and not in an "easter egg" manner.

I have thought long and hard about why the show would both reference the original and then advertise its rejection of the template and the only reason I can come up with is Dollhouse. This version of Nikita is as much a response to Dollhouse as it is to Besson's Nikita. The new show's glossy style and sensuality is reminiscent of Dollhouse, while the story structure is reminiscent of Nikita.

It's almost as if this Nikita is saying, "this is what Dollhouse could have been."

As critical as I am of the lack of emotional weight of Nikita so far, I have to say that I am impressed with their twist. I am impressed enough to watch the show for a few more episodes to see where they go.

At the end of the pilot, we discover that Nikita was the pig in the opening scene and that Alex is being used as her "mole" inside Division to help her destroy it from the inside. It is a nice twist and one that I wasn't expecting.

The show has some interesting moments, but it's going to have to acquire some "heart" if it wants to retain me as a viewer. It can either do this by giving me empathetically dramatic stakes, or by adding humor. I don't care which one they do, but they have to make the show stand apart from its origins.
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