Why Nikita will be missed

Feature Caroline Preece 15 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Was the underrated CW series Nikita the most daringly feminist show since Buffy? Caroline argues it deserves more respect...

I’m not sure when it happened but, sometime after the 90s when shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena left our screens, television had a lot fewer female action heroines to offer. It’s arguably gotten a lot better since the lull that came directly after those much celebrated series ended, but there’s one show that has flown the flag while, at the same time, making almost zero impact on the minds of most television fans. The CW’s Nikita, which finished its own run a couple of weeks ago, will be remembered by its fans as being one of the bravest, solidly entertaining and ignored shows in recent memory.

It was a CW show, which accounts in some part for its lack of a wide audience since, as good as many shows on the network are and have been, the only one to really break into mainstream acceptance has been Arrow, airing after Nikita’s peak. Beginning in the 2010/11 season when the network was still dealing almost exclusively in teen dramas, Nikita was a kind of experiment in which the high school/fantasy formula that had worked so well for The Vampire Diaries was transposed onto a more adult setting. It was a remake of 90s show La Femme Nikita (itself a remake of Luc Besson’s film), but it would strive to do things a little differently.

The series may have shot itself in the foot from the beginning, however, as the marketing for its first season was far from honest or indicative of what the series itself would try to do. Massive billboards of Maggie Q’s semi-naked, gun-toting image were released in the months leading up to its premiere, giving many people the impression that this would yet another remake, with all of the hollow sheen and vapidness that non-fans had come to associate with all CW series. When these people saw the pilot, the same assumptions were made but, as is often the case with people who have already made their minds up, they were missing the bigger picture.

For what Nikita tried to do throughout its run (with a few forgivable missteps) was turn the idea of a sexualised, bad-ass female spy looking good and kicking butt entirely on its head. The show centred on a protagonist who, rather than being stuck inside Division as previous versions of her character had been, was already free and seeking revenge. With the addition of Alex, her mole inside the organisation posing as a fresh recruit, the show could tell two stories at once, with two intriguing, damaged and co-dependent female protagonists to follow through the course of the show.

This way, we got to see the values of Division – teaching its recruits to be proper bikini-clad babes while at the same time teaching them to be ruthless assassins – being passed on to Alex at the same time as we saw Nikita reject them. In the series itself, we rarely actually saw the characters wearing anything inappropriate unless they were being forced to for the job, and that’s a distinction many initial viewers failed to see. Do any internet search on the show and you’ll find endless damning reviews and commentary calling it un-feminist, but recent insights in light of its quiet, peaceful death in 2013 told a very different story.

For Nikita might actually have been the most daringly feminist series we’ve seen since Buffy, and with its lack of success came a certain amount of freedom for it to stick to its guns. People stopped talking about it and, slowly, its small pocket of viewers began to abandon it also. Once initial problems were sorted out, however, continual support (at least in terms of season renewals) from its network meant that it could tell its story in television’s background, never showing obvious signs of executive meddling or viewer-grabbing tactics. This is massively rare in a low-rated show, and is sadly something usually only seen in shows no one watches.

What emerged from all of these different circumstances was a hugely compelling action series which won both male and female fans on merit alone. Nikita was never a cool or trendy show, but the people who stuck by it from the beginning were always fiercely loyal and protective. The fact that it lasted three (and a bit) years is amazing in itself and, while shows like Community and Chuck won a lot of attention for their continuous cheating of death year after year, it felt as if Nikita was always existing on life support. There’s a reason its last two episodes were titled Bubble and Cancelled, because those two words had plagued it for years.

The last decade is littered with examples of female-centric action shows that have failed – Bionic Woman, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles – and that could simply be attributed to changing tastes. Viewers were happy to watch a female Star Trek captain, a vampire slayer and a warrior princess back in the 90s, but the 00s have changed that slightly. We arguably have more women in central roles than ever before, but viewers weren’t buying what Nikita was selling. It’s probably something that will never be explored or explained in its wake, but that doesn’t mean the show itself isn’t worth celebrating.

For it did something pretty much unheard of by having not one, not two, but three central female characters who drove every single second of the narrative. What’s more, these weren’t flawless, gorgeous and unflappable superwomen like so many we’ve seen over the years – they were supremely damaged women who brought with them a lot of issues the show never failed to properly and sensitively explore. Where else on network television could you see issues like human sex trafficking, prostitution, abuse and drug addiction dealt with not as a detached case that needed to be solved, but as something directly affecting the main cast? These things were never brushed under the carpet, and were a part of the story until its end.

And for the first two seasons it did with Division what Dollhouse had attempted to do, but better thought out. The muddled message behind Joss Whedon’s show rubbed me (and I’d assume a lot of other people) up the wrong way with its pitching of the dolls’ captors as the eventual heroes of the story and the failure to follow through on the ramifications of the show’s central concept, but Nikita had an admirable clarity with a similar storyline. The simplicity of the early episodes and seasons meant that we were completely sure we were watching a Team Nikita vs. Dangerous Patriarchy, but it’s this precision that made it such an enjoyable ride. When you compare the two for how they dealt with the same issues, I think Nikita got a bad rap.

But even disregarding the external circumstances of the show or the real-world matters it attempted to shine a light on, Nikita was as good a spy-fi show as we’ve had in years. Initial comparisons to Alias were supposed to be unkind and, while the show did have to shed its tween-spy aspects at the very beginning, it ended up being a pretty worthy successor. Rather than being cancelled outright, it was granted a six-part farewell season at the end of 2013 and, as it had been for most of its run, it faded to black over the Christmas period without many people really noticing. That’s a shame, especially since those six-episodes were all examples of top-notch television that should really have been appointment viewing.

This wasn’t paint-by-numbers television, nor was it a throwaway spy-light show as many have dismissed it as. Some series just aren’t blessed with wide-spread appeal and huge viewing figures, and that unfortunately means that they’re cancelled before their time. Nikita defied those odds by cheating death as many times as it needed to in order to tell a complete story and, now that it’s over, the pain of its departure is much less that it could have been. For those of us who watched it, it’ll be remembered as a brave, complicated and entertaining series that always went deeper and further than it needed to. 

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Agree with all what you write here. Nikita was really good show for me!

Good article. I hadn't realised it initially suffered criticism as anti-feminist. It's true the marketing as I remember it could have created an impression it would be babes with guns but it wasn't that at all. Whilst like all tv, it had some very attractive female leads (and male too) it never played on that angle for its own sake as the article says. Although it didn't occur to me as such at the time (which probably means it did its job well), I didn't notice here was a programme with a strong female lead and villain. Just strong characters. Will miss it.

As a man it's kind of hard to argue with a woman on the subject of feminism because really that's not our province but for me Nikita wasn't really feminist. Yes there were a lot of kick arse women in it but I found them all very poorly charactarized and there wasn't really much in the way of character development either. I suppose it's a bit too much to ask of an action oriented tv-show but I'm still looking for that show with really well developed female leads. I think the closest thing we've been to a "feminist show" has been Battlestar Galactica. It's one of the very few shows I know where the female characters were really well developed while still being strong or powerful at the same time. I mean a lot of them were messed up inside as well but the same coud be said for the bulk of BSG's male cast. That's one of the things I love about BSG. It had real, flawed, very strong, very human characters regardless of gender.

Exactly. It's about 'strong characters, female' rather than 'strong female characters'. The latter implies that to be strong mainly requires knowing how to be feisty and use a gun.

Totally agree with everything said in this article, I was abused growing up and although I'm not female I found it was both moving and an accurate portrayal in how abuse affects lives, it was defnitely an empowering show with Nikita and Alex never letting themselves be merely defined as victims.

I agree with BSG, but as to your comment about Nikita I don't agree, I'm not sure if you've watched the whole series or not because you'd find there is some of the best characterisation I've seen in years in the show, with all three women in particluar (Nikita, Amanda and Alex) being intertwined to a very psychological degree which is highlighted in the third season.

I would love to see baby with guns (in bikini). It was not it and I did not watched it.

Never saw it. I'll gve it a go after I finish watching the Bridge.

Oh Nikita You will never know anything about my home
I'll never know how good it feels to hold you
Nikita I need you so

Nikita will be back at some point. Let's not forget this was the 5th incaranation of the character, starting with the Besson's original movie, followed by the US and Hong Kong remakes and, of course, Peta Wilson's Nikita.

So in terms of female led 'action/adventure/genre' shows, the end of Nikita leaves us with what? Lost Girl, Continuum; Once Upon a Time (and Wonderland, for as long as that lasts); Covert Affairs and Orphan Black. Did I miss any?

Not many, but that's still better than over here in the UK, where we've had a parade of 'boys own' adventures, from Robin Hood to Merlin to Atlantis to this weekend's Musketeers.

Mrs Peel... You're really needed.

I just found the show on netflix and watched every season. I love the show. probably my favorite show of all time. I love spy shows and this was way more well done than Alias- even though I liked it too. I would even put it up there with 24. I was into all the characters and the story was intriguing. The writers did a great job of adding twists that werent expected. Filming was also great and the cast was excellent. I wish it hadnt cancelled. I was really looking forward to the next season.

Good article. This show completely passed me by, probably because there have been so many remakes of Nikita.
Whilst not an action show, Veronica Mars was certainly a kick-arse feminist show in the post-Buffy period...

I completely agree. I'm a fan disappointed by the network for not trying to put it in a better time slot. This show should still be running.

Nikita really was the best action The CW ever had.

Considering all what Nikita and Alex have been going through, both before and after they met I don't think anyone can question their strengths.

If we really want to look at an anti-feminist tv work, we can just look at Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Both the marketing and the core concepts of the show were appalling.

Don't worry, Nikita fans, Archer's back.

I gave up on Nikita half way through the second series when they had to go to London on a mission (quite obviously Vancouver or somewhere rainy in the Pacific NW). I watched the episode and thought to myself at this point in the series what has happened: Has Nikita's character changed? Has Alex's? Has anyone in Division got a Scooby to what is going on? Can I see some sort of development forthcoming? Is there something better on? The answer to all of the above (except the last question) was No. As for something better, Person of Interest is much better, and features four excellent female characters (in particular the lovely Sarah Shahi - that's how you do a brooding ex-spy!)

Maggie Q was lovely, and I would have loved to see her on a few more light hearted action missions ala Burn Notice in order to bed her in as a character.

The other flaw in Nikita was the lack of a supporting cast. Buffy had it, Burn Notice had it, Chuck had it, even Veronica Mars (the best example of a feminist action show in the last decade) had it. It rounds out the lead character to see how they interact with friends/colleagues and creates chemistry.

I don't know what show you were watching but even up until the point you had watched both Nikita and Alex's characters had changed drastically- heck Alex did a 180 on Nikita and was adamant on getting revenge, Michael joined Nikita's side to bring down Division, and Nikita at the begining of season 2 was concerned about her life with Michael, if you watched the whole series you would find the charcaters completely different to where they began with Nikita doing anything in the end to not be defined as a killer. I would whole heartedly disgaree with POI featuring better female charcaters, this show featured three strong leads all of whom were damaged compliacted and determined not to be defined as victims. I would also totally disagree about the supporting cast, Aaron stanford as Birkhoff quickly became a fan favourite and a go to for quirky quips, Shane West was brooding and also a strong counterpart to Nikita's character, and Lyndsy Fonseca and Maggie Q's chemistry was undeniable, and thats not even mentioning Xander Berkley as Percy or Melinda Clarke who was able to blur the line of a comical villian and a woman not to be messed with exceptionally.

Thank you DoG!!

I am so glad you guys wrote this article. I have been trying to champion this show to all my friends and family for so long.

To those who are going to get into this show, remember that, like Arrow, you need to give it a few episodes before it finds its rhythm. And from then on, its absolute madness.

This is one of the most cleverly written shows of the last 10 years.

Dont listen to this guy. No clue what show he thinks he was watching.

I suggest you guys watch it for yourself and be ready to be blown away!!

Sorry Buddy.. Dont know what incarnation of Nikita you watched, but if you had even completed the first season of this incarnation, you would have witnessed an extremely powerful story arc for the women.. and by the end of the season each character was so well defined and containing rich back stories.. you would feel the same pain i felt when the time came to say good bye to them.

*slow claps*

I miss this show :(

Joss is anti feminist ?? Ummm, you really wanna rethink that. Really.

I enjoed every second of this show. I've learn a lot from the stories ,and from the cast who were amazing ! I'm a huge fan ,and there is more of us all over the world! We still fight for it to come back on the screen !

Actually he is right about the supporting cast.They were really bad actors.Especially Shane.He was the weakest version of Michael and I have seen all of the movies & shows and Roy Dupri was the best actor to play that character.Now Melinda,Xander,Aaron & Lyndsy were ok but not the best actors I ever seen.Same with Maggie,she was ok but not the best. Shane was the worst of them all.

#BEST-SHOW-EVER: Gonna really miss this breathing-taking, jaw-dropping television series
#NEVER-GONNA-4GET-THIS-SERIES
Though TV SERIES Alias is similar but all ended
:*

OK better late than never. I just binge-watched the entire series. After the first two episodes, I was hooked. Good writing, only rare missteps. Nikita and Alex were well cast. Funny I had never heard of this show before, just found it online. RIP

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