Well, as I heavily alluded to in my last post (my big Fall TV Preview), the new TV season is upon us. My DVR is already on the verge of exploding. And I've been eyeing my cable bill, twitchily on the cusp of calling the moneygrubbing rip-off artists at Charter and ordering HBO, for the purpose of watching Boardwalk Empire and Eastbound & Down. Mondays and Thursdays though ... man, just too much TV on at one time, and so it becomes essential to narrow down my viewing to only the best of the best. Now, Thursdays in particular are tough - you've got the NBC comedies, maybe my favorite TV drama of the moment in Fringe, and now, Nikita.
I wasn't prepared to commit to Nikita, but hey, the pilot genuinely surprised me. It wasn't a home run, per se, but it also didn't feel like some generic, CW-ized take on the Nikita legend. I was impressed that the pilot didn't simply retread what's already come before, instead giving us a new twist on the at-this-point-well-established story. I liked that Nikita was now an experienced operative-gone-rogue - on the run from Division (a different name for the group known as Section in the old series), and out to bring down the corrupt government agency. On the old La Femme Nikita show, we saw a number of storylines that explored the idea that Section was going to far outside the bounds of upholding global peace. Instead, under a corrupt leadership looking to further its own political agenda and power base, Section became a very morally grey institution - one that agents like Nikita were never quite comfortable operating under. In any case, I thought it was cool that the new Nikita jumps right into the midst of this interesting situation - Nikita vs. Division. Plus, to make sure that the show still has a familiar element to it, we see the usual Nikita origin story played out via Alex - a Nikita-esque teen who's a recent Division recruit.
The pilot very cleverly threw us a big curveball at the end. We had been led to believe that the stories of Nikita and Alex were relatively distinct. Perhaps, we might assume, Alex was being groomed to eventually help take down Nikita in a clash of the new model vs. the original. But, as it turns out, Alex is actually working WITH Nikita, planted in Division to spy on the group and act as Nikita's woman on the inside.
This was a damn good twist, I thought, and instantly gave the pilot a new layer of complexity that we didn't quite see at the outset. While watching the pilot, I definitely had some major reservations about the show's potential - the acting was in some cases subpar, there was some iffy writing / dialogue, and while the show looked slick, it lacked the unique style and aesthetic of the old USA series. But, that ending made me think that the show might just have some real juice - if this new Nikita could weave an intricate, layered plot around these iconic archetypes, then maybe, just maybe, it could prove itself a worthy torchbearer of the La Femme Nikita franchise.
So, I was sort of excited for Episode 2, and genuinely starting to wonder where the plot was going. I was coming around to Hong Kong action star Maggie Q in the title role, and was anxious to see if some of the key supporting actors like Xander Berkley as Percy (filling the old role of "Operations) and Melinda Clarke as Amanda (the equivalent of the old series' Madeline) could step up and be as good in this as they were on 24 and The OC respectively. In Episode 2 though, I still don't think either character has much bite, and watching this one really made me miss the old series. Xander Berkley does sleazy cunning well, but so far he doesn't seem truly menacing or dangerous. Similarly, Melinda Clarke has shown she's good with soapy melodrama, but seems a little lightweight here. And maybe that's the problem - while the Nikita pilot seemed surprisingly edgy and action-packed for a CW show, the second ep seemed to revert to what I had feared the show might be. The petty fighting at Division between Alex and rival recruit Jaden, for example, was just plain hard to watch. And although the Birkhoff character had some fun moments, he just comes off like every snarky tech geek in every action show and movie ever made. What made the character so great on La Femme Nikita was that he wasn't snarky or cool, but a genuinely shy, awkward, nerdy guy who had basically never known a life outside of Section. I don't know, I'm just concerned that so far, none of the supporting characters have truly popped.
I'm also concerned with the overall pacing of the show. Whereas the old La Femme Nikita was known for its stylish action sequences and proto-24 sense of sleek, quasi-futuristic cool, the new Nikita seems to have a lot of CW-style montages of emo-ish brooding set to mellow indie rock tunes. Seriously? This is Nikita, not Gossip Girl and hopefully not Smallville. Less brooding, more ass-kicking, please. The style issue is actually important, too. On the old show, Section was a cold, foreboding place filled with sinister-looking operatives and hardened criminals-turned-government-agents. Now, Division is like reform school for troubled teens who walk around wearing ab-revealing tank tops and spend most of their time in high school-style romantic stand-offs.. Again, the pilot hinted that things would be a little more edgy and hardcore than you might have thought, and yet ... Episode 2 felt like a step back.
Indeed, even the segments that were on one level the most intriguing - the flashbacks to Nikita's initial recruitment of Alex - felt pretty by-the-numbers. If these are the kinds of flashbacks that the show has in store for us, then I hope it sticks more to the here and now from this point forward. I think I was also a bit troubled by the "mission" at hand for Alex. Not to beat a dead horse here, but La Femme Nikita, when not airing mythology-driven episodes, had a knack for really badass one-and-done installments, often with pretty memorable villains-of-the-week. In comparison, Alex's first mission was, well, to be a prostitute. Seriously, that was it. It made me wonder if the show might collapse under the weight of its multitiered structure. If each episode is going to feature more of the cat and mouse game between Nikita and Division, PLUS a mission-of-the-week for Alex, PLUS have Nikita somehow end up involved in Alex's mission trying to both help her AND thwart Division's sketchy agenda - that's going to make it hard to focus on anything in particular, and to really churn out some meaty self-contained stories.
I think, with a show like Nikita, that's a remake of a remake of a remake, it really needs a reason to justify its existence. Is it a unique creative vision? A new twist on an old story? A new chapter? The pilot hinted that it might be something interesting, something special. Episode 2 gave me some serious doubts. Now, I'm on the fence. We'll see what the next handful of episodes bring.
Episode 2: C+
And, what was I saying about having a fierce internal debate about whether to spring for HBO? Haven't quite settled that yet, but I did manage to catch the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, so ... here are my thoughts.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE thoughts:
It's funny, because a lot of people - me included - have expressed worry that, after a brief renaissance of sorts, TV could be headed back to a dark age of reality TV crap and other such lowest-common-denominator fare. There is some evidence to support that, but, whereas things looked bleak a year or two ago, networks like FX, AMC, and in particular HBO are fighting to usher in a new golden age. Hugely ambitious projects, big budgets, A-list cast and creative talent. Experiences on television that equal or rival anything at the movies in terms of size and scope. Well, BOARDWALK EMPIRE is exhibit A in this equation - a new HBO series brimming with ambition and loaded with talent. Rarely has a TV show been this prestige right out of the gate.
The Boardwalk Empire pilot, directed by Martin Scorcese, feels like Part 1 of the next Oscar-worthy Martin Scorcese movie. That alone is a pretty huge endorsement. Steve Buscemi stars as Nucky Thompson, the city treasurer of Atlantic City at the dawn of the prohibition era. Even before the new anti-booze laws go into effect, Nucky has plans to keep Atlantic City wet even as other parts of the country go dry. Buscemi has always been the man - one of the best actors of the last couple of decades - and it's a treat to see him star in a show like this. It's definitely a unique role for character actor Buscemi - we're used to seeing him play weaselly, awkward outcasts. But here he's sort of sleazy, sure, but also a leader and a fugire of great authority. I think it's a credit to Buscemi that he pulls it off.
The rest of the cast is already shaping up to be stellar. I can't wait, for example, to see more of the great Michael Shannon as Van Alden, a fed looking to put the early hurt on would-be bootleggers. I think Shannon should be in the Oscar race for his role in this year's The Runaways, and now he may be in the Emmy race for this part as well. The guy is just intense as hell in everything he does. Michael Pitt is probably the early standout though as Jimmy - a young lackey of Nucky's who's still traumatized from his experiences in WWI and feeling reckless and overambitious because of it. It's clear that the building partnership/conflict between Nucky and Jimmy is going to be one of the show's central story arcs, and it's going to be exciting to see that develop over time.
In fact, the pilot is almost overloaded with characters and plot points, and it's one flaw is that it feels so much, structurally, like a movie, that it almost feels like you're getting bits of a great film without the payoff. From what I've read, the show settles into a more conventional, serialized rhythm in the second episode, which is good. But, by that same token, the pilot really feels like something special for that same reason - it's just uber-cinematic and epic. The direction by Scorcese is classic Scorcese - evocative, larger-than-life, and at times filled with quick bursts of brutal and shocking violence. There's a lot of very artful cutting between the main characters and colorful period detail - street parades, comedy shows, ostentatious advertising, etc. - that give a real flavor for the time and place. And all of that detail is pretty amazing - the set design, the locations, the costuming - they're all absolutely top notch.
I'm very, very curious to see some additional episodes of Boardwalk Empire. There's so much setup in the pilot that it's almost difficult to tell where this is all going - which characters are the ones to watch, which plotlines are going to have the big payoffs? But what the pilot pulls off spectacularly is that it creates - well, recreates - this world that you want to go back to. So far, so good.
My Grade: A-
Man, so much TV. Tonight alone, we've got the return of CHUCK, the premiere of THE EVENT, and the premiere of LONE STAR. Stay tuned for more.