Like Alias? Try La Femme Nikita

Alias is one of my favorite shows. It's a well-written, well-acted spy drama that focuses on what we fans call Spy Family: Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and her father, mother, half-sister, lover, and co-workers. It takes spy drama to a new level as it explores the emotional dynamics of those relationships amid the paranoia and violence of the undercover life. The first three seasons are out on DVD and the fourth will be released this fall before the fifth season begins. If you haven't caught the show yet, I highly recommend it. It's engrossing, and highly addictive.

I've only recently discovered an earlier show that has some of the same dynamics. La Femme Nikita somehow got under my radar when it first aired for four and a half seasons on USA, from 1996 through 2000. The first three seasons are now out on DVD; if it weren't for DVDs, I might never have discovered it at all. I rented the first couple of disks last month, and somewhere between episodes 5 and 8, I got hooked. I've been going through episodes every night like popcorn. If it were running today, I'd be compulsively reviewing every episode.

Nikita and Alias have much in common. The lead character is a strong, kick-ass heroine who must cope with her extraordinary life as an undercover spy. Violence, deception, and torture are commonplace; she could be captured by the enemy or die at any moment. Everyone in her life has an agenda, and almost no one can be trusted.

The background organization on Alias has changed from SD-6 to the CIA to APO, but the background organization on Nikita is always the same: Section One. Section One is a secret government organization that fights terrorism by extraordinary means (yeah, I know, done a million times, but it works so well here). Utterly brutal and inhumane, Section One "recruits" murderers on death row by faking their deaths, trains them for two years, and then throws them into the field to literally succeed or die. Agents who betray Section are executed. Agents who screw up or don't meet Section standards are used as cannon fodder on suicide missions. No one gets out of Section alive.

Nikita, played with heart by the exceptionally beautiful Peta Wilson, is the emotional center of the story. Innocent of the murder for which she was convicted and trapped in the inhumanity of Section One, Nikita is determined to retain her soul and her conscience even when it endangers her life. Not the strongest of actresses, Wilson is always quirky and likable, and her work improves as the show progresses. There is an excellent supporting cast that includes the villainous Section leader, Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer) and his frightening second in command, Madeline (Alberta Watson), as well as Nikita's more human co-workers Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson) and Walter (Don Francks).

In nearly every cult television show, there is one particular character that captures the imagination of the fans, the one that generates the fan clubs and the obsessive fan fiction. On Nikita, it's the male lead, Michael, played with great subtlety and sex appeal by French Canadian actor Roy Dupuis. Michael, who is Nikita's trainer, mentor, and eventually her lover, is enigmatic, ruthless, and utterly fascinating. Dupuis manages to convey more with a closed expression and a few monosyllables than most actors can do with a soliloquy; when he finally does show strong emotion, he is riveting. I actually didn't take to him immediately; it took a few episodes until I fell under his spell, but fall I most certainly did. Monsieur Dupuis, where have you been all my life?

The writers and producers of Nikita realized early what worked on their show and what didn't, and they wisely stuck to their formula. The show was filmed in Toronto, often during the winter; the sets and the locations are cold, stark, urban and futuristic. The action is fast-paced and often shocking, and the plot twists just never stop. But it's the emotional and romantic undercurrents we see between Nikita and Michael that keep us watching, as we slowly learn bits and pieces about them, the supporting characters, and the history of the monstrously evil Section One. The series just gets better and more engrossing as it progresses.

The advent of digital technology and the current glut of television series out on DVD is a boon to television fans. We now have the opportunity to discover shows we missed on their original runs, intact and commercial-free. Go out and explore, television fans! Discover brave new worlds, and new shows to love.
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

9 comments:

Remco said...

I watched the first season when Nikita aired. I lost interest in it because it wasn't written very well. The creators go through the story with an ease much like you would expect from Charmed. Unknown innocent victim here, unknown victim there. This show doesn't use guest-stars, but guest-victims.

Since I've watched Nikita for one whole season, there must have been something I liked. And I did. Its use of music worked exceptionally well to heighten the emotion of a scene. Also, the action and shock value was great. I just LOVE Madeline. She's so scary, so crazy and so evil!

I liked Nikita. But it certainly wasn't 'good'. It was more of a guilty pleasure of mine. It was like Alias season 3 and the first half of four.

Billie Doux said...

We all see and interpret things through our own particular lenses; some of us like stuff that others don't like, and so on. I really, really like Nikita; it hit a chord with me, and that's why I wrote about it. Too bad you didn't continue with season two, because it gets better.

Milferd said...

I probably do need to check out this sometime. I did spoil myself because what I did watch of Nikita is mostly the last season including finale. I did enjoy what I saw.

So I will stick to a non spoilish observation (I hope). Many shows are guilty of having the bit player foot soldiers have unbelievable high moral and fight to the death, including Alias sometimes. Nikita is particularly bad at having troops that are treated as expendable and subject to being betrayed fight fanatically well and to the death. You can't in real life and in history get troops to fight that good if they are mistreated even if you threaten to shoot them right then. (exception cultural in example Japanese WWII).

onanymous said...

I think it was the style of the series that started me watching. Everything was so stark and sterile and completely unlike anything else available on tv at that stage. But it was the mysterious Michael that got me hooked.

Unfortunately the last few seasons clashed with Buffy, so I only managed to see bits and pieces of them, but I still think it was a gtreat series.

Remco said...

From what I remember of it, many episodes had one or two big plot holes. And a well thought-out season arc was absent. I mean, Nikita has this training of what, 6 years? Then she becomes an operative and the series begins. Then suddenly Madeline gives Nikita a promotion, and then another one, and then some test and another one... It didn't make sense to me.

I might try season two some day. I hope it gets better.

vente said...

Vous avez un blog très agréable et je l'aime, je vais placer un lien de retour à lui dans un de mon blogs qui égale votre contenu. Il peut prendre quelques jours mais je ferai besure pour poster un nouveau commentaire avec le lien arrière.

Merci pour est un bon blogger.

Anonymous said...

Hello...and welcome to the joys of LFN. We're a fairly small fandom but we still have a very active community that ranges from actors sites to fanfic.

If you'd like to check us out, may I suggest the LFN msg board at http://www.voy.com/133091/

This is mainly a fic board but has a lot of links to the other parts of the fandom including live journal.

Anonymous said...

DAWN Said...

Remco- I believe that you didn't watch Nikita as closely as you should have, because Madeline doesn't give Nikita promotions, Operations has the final decision, Madeline is simply used for her imput on the Operatives mental & physical statistics- She is tool & a toy for Operations. Nikita gets promoted because everyone is out on missions and they need someone to run a new mission and Nikita gets to run it, but failing is never an option- so you figure it out she must have earned her promotions!!!

Anonymous said...

Remco from what you've written, you're the one who's not making any sense! Go watch it again and this time PAY ATTENTION!

Billie, you are so spot on with these words "the one that generates the fan clubs and the obsessive fan fiction. it's the male lead, Michael.."

I saw LFN Nikita a decade ago and could not let go mainly because of Michael/Nikita team. The best tv series i've seen..even until now I'm still in love with them...

and out of ALL the leading men and sexy scenes i've watched on TV/movies it's ONLY and ONLY with MICHAEL where I wished fervently, that I could switch places with whomever he's making love to! call me crazy but there it is!