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History of TV: The many lives of ‘La Femme Nikita'

March 3, 2022
5 min read time

I was a teenager the first time I watched La Femme Nikita, which is probably why it stuck so prominently in my memory. This woman was fierce. Yet…not. She was something we hadn’t seen a lot of on television or in film yet, though clearly craved, as shown by the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the same year and Alias (starring Sidney Bristow in her debut role) four years later. . Nikita herself was a remake, to be remade again a decade later. Then came Ava, Kate, Salt and Lucy (and so, so many more in different countries). Sensing the trend, yet?

The action-drama was my first taste of Canadian cinema. It was dark production design, broodish, and always seems to feature fewer happy endings than you’d think… There’s definitely something there for film critics and psychologists alike to play with, considering how the world views Canadians in general. But everyone seemed to love La Femme Nikita.  It was basic cable channel USA Network’s number-one drama during its first two seasons. While La Femme Nikita lasted five seasons, its supervising producer Peter M. Lenkov of the original Miami Vice and The Equalizer TV shows went on to create the wildly popular 24. And La Femme Nikita only received its fifth, shorter and final season thanks to a successful fan campaign dubbed “Save LFN” after the series was canceled in 2000.

 

Recycled remakes

Before La Femme Nikita there was the 1990 Franco-Italian film production—one of Luc Besson’s first—which was nominated for a Golden Globe® Award for Best Foreign Language Film. While he went on to do The Fifth Element, The Transporter, and Lucy, the Nikita character was reincarnated as La Femme Nikita in 1997 by Joel Surnow (Miami Vice, 24) before the CW remade her yet again in 2010.

The original, big screen Nikita is a drug addict who kills a police officer, and instead of life in jail, a secret government agency fakes her death and transforms her into an assassin. Hollywood briefly took a stab at the character with Bridget Fonda in the Nikita-esque role in 1993’s Point of No Return.

In television’s La Femme Nikita, Peta Wilson’s Nikita is a homeless woman whom Section One, a top-secret counter-terrorism organization, frames for murder—she is not a killer or a drug user, though she does become highly adept as the former throughout the series. If she doesn’t follow orders, she’ll be “canceled” herself. What keeps Nikita ingratiated with the audience, however, is the humanity she manages to exude throughout it all. Her actions toe the line between doing what’s best for her country—often through questionable means—and even more so in detriment to her own morality. That internal struggle drives LFN, as much as the external struggle that comes from her relationship with her trainer, Michael (Roy Dupuis). The fact that Nikita is Section One’s only innocent recruit puts her in a unique position and gives the audience their empathetic surrogate into this world.

Maggie Q starred as the beautiful assassin in the CW remake with Shane West (A Walk to Remember, Gotham) as her paramour and partner Michael. The twist: This time, Nikita has gone rogue and aims to bring down the organization that ruined her life after they killed her fiancé and turned her into a killer herself. She also has a protégé of sorts in Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca—Kick-Ass, Agent Carter), who is our girl on the inside of the secretly government-funded Division. Produced by McG, Nikita had a few fun nods to its predecessor, such as casting Alberta Watson—who played Nikita’s antagonist and psychologist in LFN, Madeline—as antagonist Senator Madeline Pierce. Meanwhile, Watson’s original role was renamed Amanda and played by Melinda Clarke in Nikita.

Although Buffy may own the rights to the slogan “to each generation a Slayer is born,” Nikita appears to be retooled to suit the culture of her current incarnation.

 

The heart of Nikita

The Nikita character is essentially a soldier; a trained weapon at the mercy of her higher-ups. Especially in the case of LFN, she is innocent, sometimes ignorant and vulnerable.  As a woman in a man’s world these attributes are exemplified in her work, how they mold her and in the character itself placed in the action genre dominated by the male gaze. She has to work three times as hard to gain respect because of her compassion and unwillingness to simply “do the job” sometimes. She never stops thinking for herself despite it all; she never stops questioning.

It’s easy to see thematic similarities between all of the Nikitas, namely society’s views on violence, politics and sex. It’s a peek at the darker side of things that are largely handled in the shadows, thinly veiled by the idea of “secret” government agencies and operatives. It’s the idea of questioning social processes, packaged as a slick action show.

 

In Retrospect

Spot the action tropes! One could easily turn this show into a drinking game for how many action tropes it uses. Considering LFN debuted over 20 years ago, we’ll forgive it for not going to lengths to subvert them yet (though I have no excuse for Nikita, as much as I loved it). LFN had everything: A secretive government agency, a beautiful action hero with a heart of gold, unrequited love, the Big Bad (that is overshadowed by yet a Bigger Bad the following season), generational trauma, moles, bulletproof vests that double as Deus ex machina, and so much more. Watch more for a “where it all began” that was  embraced, rather than a “how did they topple our expectations like that?!”.

Classically, there is already talk of another Nikita reboot in our future. No doubt I’ll watch. For now, you can catch episodes of both series on Apple TV and Google Play.

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