Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Monday, October 10, 2005

La Femme Nikita (USA television series)

Dating back to the fabulously cheesy Silk Stalkings, a Miami Vice knockoff that rode the pastel sport coat and hair gel revolution into the ground, the USA network has been a favorite channel in our household. Before we discuss today's Overlooked Gem, the USA's La Femme Nikita series, it's important to put the network itself in perspective. Then we can discuss the underappreciated wonders of the show that made 24 and Alias possible.

The USA network first caught my attention in the late-1980s with quirky late-night programming like Night Flight and Up All Night. In 1991, the network wisely picked up Silk Stalkings, which had debuted on CBS, where it was quickly cancelled along with the rest of the late Friday night Crime Time After Primetime slot. Silk Stalkings, a creation of tv schlockmeister Stephen J. Cannell, set the pace for the network's subsequent original programming: 1) knockoff a previously successful show or adapt a hit movie for the small screen; 2) cast a duo of sexy lead actors and play up the sexual tension for all it's worth; 3) feature plots involving wealthy older men who are murdered by the lesbian lovers of their trophy wives; 4) utilize dimestore versions of the production techniques of Michael Mann and other '80s action movie directors; and 5) populate each episode's "bad guys" with Asians in ponytails and distinguished middle-age men of indiscriminate Eastern European and Middle Eastern descent. For anyone willing to acknowledge that television should entertain and numb rather than educate and inspire, the USA formula was a winner, even when shows like Pacific Blue, a Baywatch-for-bike cops knockoff, failed. To illustrate the powers of communication that a USA production typically possesses, the year we lived in Budapest, Hungary, we used to watch episodes of Silk Stalkings dubbed in German - a language we didn't know - without missing a beat.

If you've seen the original French movie La Femme Nikita (or the US remake starring Briget Fonda), you know the basic plot that the tv show would exploit. I'm certain that a number of you reading this have already shaken your head in disbelief that so much blog space could be given to this television series rather than the groundbreaking movie that inspired it, but the original film got its due for showing French people bravely firing guns and blowing things up upon its release. As an Overlooked Gem, let's review a few of the qualities that mark the sign of a Great Television Series, namely a dynamic, sexually charged lead duo; a cast that is 6-deep in talent; distinctive background music; and as a show that's set in the "workplace," the ability to fulfill one of the two workplace fantasy models.

Let's start with the chemistry of the leads. Pete Wilson's Nikita and Roy DuPuis' Michael were smokin'! Whereas the original Nikita, Anne Parillaud, was feral and sexy more than outright beautiful, Wilson put it all together. Similarly, the Michael character smoldered through scenes with the vacant sensuality Val Kilmer could barely scratch while playing the equally failed vacantly sensual Jim Morrison. We're not talking Shakespeare here, or even Luc Besson films, but small-screen, cable, niche market episodic tv. Peta Wilson and Roy DuPuis kept it simple and looked great doing so. The inevitable lovers had all the cat-and-mouse, love/hate, I-think-we're-alone-now routines down pat.

As strong as the show's leads were, don't discount the power of a cast that is 6-deep in talent. The characters of Operations (harsh, paranoid, manipulative boss), Madeline (overprotective, well-intentioned yet spiritually poisoned stepmother figure to Nikita), Birkoff (science geek manchild), and Walter (pathetic if loveable hippie/shaman/Vietnam vet) provided a supporting cast as integral to the show's success as did the supporting casts of Cheers, Seinfeld, and M.A.S.H.

The distinctive opening theme and the show's background music, including both the original score and snippets of atmospheric, '90s underground artists (eg, Morphine), were part of the fabric of the show. Although the existence of this music was wholly independent of the television series, longtime fans of the show were likely to categorize something like a track from the first Beth Orton album as "Nikita music," much like fans of the James Bond series of movies might classify all subsequent brassy instrumentals with a certain beat as "James Bond music."

Finally, let's review the two models of shows set in the workplace and how USA's La Femme Nikita satisfied this dynamic for viewers. The best workplace shows use the workplace setting not only as a means for pulling together an assortment of unique characters facing challenging situations but to create an underlying mood of either relatively functional family joy and comfort or extremely dysfunctional dread. Cheers and Sports Night were a great examples of the former. Coworkers were there for each other; hell, when push came to shove, the boss was there for the staff. I used to watch those shows and get depressed about going to work the next day. There was no way my real job could live up to that fantasy. The workplace of La Femme Nikita, on the other hand, is one of dread. Despite the care that the Section team of Nikita, Michael, Birkoff, Walter, and whatever side characters came to the fore for a particular story arc had for each other, Operations and Madeline - and their higher ups - inspired nothing but dread. This made for gripping television watching, and it also helped me look foward to the next day's work, because no matter how bad my job might have been overall or for a particular stretch, it was never remotely as bad as life in the Section.

There's so much more I could cover, but frankly, if I said anymore on the subject I'd have to invite you over to watch a few episodes, and that just seems weird. If you're not already a fan, I strongly encourage you to rent Season 1 on DVD and see if you don't get hooked.


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