Wednesday, June 20, 2012

ATVC 2012: Nikita

Spoilers abound, so beware.

23 episodes, CW (September 2011 - May 2012)

A risky strategy in Nikita's first season was its tendency to play its cards too quickly, meaning Nikita and Alex's covert partnership was removed mid-season, Nikita and Michael coupled up after only briefly dancing around the subject, and Alex's Division status propelled forward before you could really settle into her character's position of power. Season one was spectacular, but there was always that risk that things were running so fast that stories could quickly dry up. This season, there were definitely annoying side effects to that. But it seems to be the CW's prerogative, as I hear that most of the network's drama series bombard you with plots that get introduced and resolved within two or three episodes. It's obviously a peculiar complaint, since you don't want to slow things down so much that the show becomes turtle porn, but the fast pace sometimes becomes so frenetic that you lose sight of character and narrative.

I should probably preface all of this by saying that I watched Nikita in around three blocks this year. For reasons unrelated to the show itself, I ended up viewing runs of episodes in large chunks, rather than at the speed of their initial airdates. With that in mind, my lack of enthusiasm about the show could easily have been a result of that, not so much because I lacked any interest in the stories the show was telling.

Presumably at the request of the network, Nikita became pretty standalone-driven this season. While every episode was at least linked by an ongoing narrative (be it Percy's machinations, or the black boxes, or Gogol), most of the missions were a little thin, generally involving a character being kidnapped, or foiling the latest dastardly plot that Xander Berkeley's mustache-twirling antagonist was launching. Division itself also became weirdly insular, the agency suddenly faceless beyond Amanda, Sean, and Sonya and her annoying accent. While they started up as ciphers, it made me miss the presence of Thom and Jaden, who at least had vibrant personalities. Amanda got a little neutered at times, too, like she grew this 'stock' personality to match the 'stock' evilness of Percy. Eh.

There was also this annoying push-and-pull dynamic with the core group at the center of the show. While the fact that they grew and bonded as a team worked well (Birkhoff in particular found greater purpose this year), there were moments when Alex was completely separated from them, while Michael drifted off in his bland Cassandra arc. While the show suddenly explored this group ensemble dynamic, it also gained this penchant to split them apart all the time, and I'm not sure most of them are that interesting as characters just yet to truly anchor their own subplots.

Gosh, I feel almost bad for not entirely loving the show this year. It has this intense fanbase, and I honestly question whether it's more a fault of my own that I didn't share that love, you know? Don't get me wrong, the show is still pretty awesome at the best of times, but there were just a couple of issues that prevented me from completely adoring it, especially since I loved the first season so much and have recently been watching Alias, which was just so damn intense.

If I concentrate on the positive, the show has a great team of writers, seemingly determined to pull the rug from under us at every opportunity. That aforementioned relentless quality may be plagued with worry but does at least create this intense forward momentum, something that made the last run of episodes really pop. I also continue to love Nikita as a character, particularly the insight into her history and her sometimes flawed arrogance. She's a complex protagonist, somebody we can easily root for but someone who often leads with her heart rather than her head. Her relationship with Michael isn't hugely interesting, but I like that they're very much an adult couple. While I wasn't totally absorbed by the Cassandra thing, it actually surprised me that the story didn't lead to a trashy break-up. It was actually handled in a relatively mature manner, which was welcome.

Nikita as a show has changed a lot since its initial arrival, recently adopting this arch James Bond sensibility with its nuclear warheads and dangerous satellites (Roan even got his very own Oddjob death scene), which I'm sure has its fans. There's a ton of action and explosions and the fight choreography continues to be inherently badass, but when it really works is when we learn about these characters as individuals -- when we see the vulnerability behind Amanda's cold-as-ice glare, or Nikita panicking over the type of woman she's becoming or when she realizes that she's facing an immense task, that's when the show becomes truly great. Hopefully all of that didn't read like I was dumping all over the show, it's just that it's a series that's really capable of hitting that level of quality, and sometimes falls back on ideas and themes that are sort of generic. Eh. Maybe it's me. B-

Favorite Episode I loved how Power (2.18) balanced the action with the character-driven drama of Amanda and Nikita and their past. They have such a strong dynamic, crossing 'mother/daughter', 'queen bee/worker bee' territory, but with both holding far more emotional investment in each other than presumably they'd ever consciously recognize.


  1. Obviously I disagree.
    I thought the first half of the season was sloppy and practically unwatchable (especially the Cassandra arc), while the second half was probably some of the strongest television I've EVER seen. It was just mind-blowingly thrilling and fascinating. The last couple of episodes in particular just thrived with Team Nikita at their center. Nikita became this complex, stunning protagonist, while her relationship with Michael was handled maturely and realistically. And of course, I can't praise Amanda enough as "Power" is probably my favorite episode of television this year.

    I think the fact that you watched the season in blocks, tainted your view of the whole season particularly with the first batch of atrocious hours. Because, really the last run of episodes were utter perfection (as evidenced by my numerous A+ ratings for a series of episodes).

    I was so pleased that the show got renewed and I really hope they maintain their momentum. Nikita is really the best show nobody is watching at the moment.

  2. Yikes. Yep, that was what I expected. Heh. I loved all the stuff you loved, I just didn't love it as much, you know? And I didn't think the opening stretch was particularly awful, only the premiere felt a little weak for me.

    Nikita is consistently strong action television, but I wouldn't rank any of it up among the best around, but that's just me. And I recognize that everybody seems to prefer this season to the first, but little of it got my adrenalin pumping like last year. Maybe I'm just strange...

  3. Meant to read this a while back.

    It's not just you this season, and I actually agree on a lot of what you said, particularly the idea of certain characters now being able to hold up a sub-plot on their own, though Alex is an exception to that, for me at least.

    Agreed about the whole thing between Percy and Amanda being very constrained and forced, even if it was fun to watch sometimes. I liked how much attention Amanda got this season though, her big absence in the tail end aside.

    Anyway, great review. If season 3 can put aside the need to attract a more single minded audience, it could totally own it this year.

  4. I gotta admit, it's rewarding to hear I wasn't entirely crazy. I think it's a great show, absolutely, but I definitely felt that season two was weaker than the first, and lost track of the characters a little.

    Thanks for coming back to this old stuff, anyway. Heh.