Case Study 60: La Femme Nikita, Episode 80–“Line In The Sand”

Original Airdate: July 2nd, 2000 on USA

Nowadays, basic cable channels air some of the best TV shows around, but it was not always thus. During the time that La Femme Nikita was on the air, the other USA Network original series available were Pacific Blue, Silk Stalkings, The War Next Door, G vs. E, Manhattan Arizona and Cover Me. Based on the notoriety and legacy of that lineup, it’s no surprise that the absolutely wretched Femme was enough of a hit to merit nearly 100 episodes and a four season reboot as Nikita on The CW. Let it be known that anyone who starts to get complacent about the bumper crop of excellence on hand in the golden age of television need only look upon La Femme Nikita and despair. It’s also worth noting that I make no claims about the quality of the original 1990 movie Nikita or its 1993 American remake, Point Of No Return.

Strengths

  • Internal strife. I watched five episodes of Femme for this review, and on the “strength” of the first three I was eagerly anticipating giving my second 0/10 review, but it would seem that in the third and fourth season the show picked up a little slack. Only a little, though. This episode adds a tiny bit of texture to the usual bland action plot by having 99% of the conflict coming from inside Section One, which is the name of the generic extralegal espionage/paramilitary organization where we lay our scene. The plot is spurred into action when resident computer nerd Seymour Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson) tracks down The Cardinal, the head of the equally generic bad guy organization Red Cell, but instead of having the action center around Section vs. Red Cell, our heroes spend most of their time fighting with people inside their own organization. Birkoff’s discovery triggers an interminable pissing match with his hacker rival, the smarmy ratprick Greg Hillinger (Kris Lemche, Final Destination 3.) Hillinger answers to a higher up in the organization by the name of George (David Hemblen, Earth: Final Conflict) and George has it out for Birkoff’s boss, who has the creative name of “Operations” (Eugene Robert Glazer.) It’s at least a little creative to show us how the Section is far from a united front and just as vulnerable to internal force as anything the Ruskies or whomever have to throw at them.

Weaknesses

  • Cheesy. For proof, look no further than the opening sequence. You know it’s a good sign when the theme song is meaningless vocalizations and grunts. The people behind Femme never met an awful, fake looking software interface that they didn’t like. (Though Femme is hardly a lone wolf in this respect.) I suppose I should grant that it’s entirely possible that my faith in this show’s ability to strike a serious tone was completely eroded by a scene in an early episode where Nikita (Peta Wilson, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) dramatically reveals that she’s been in disguise by removing a rubber mask fit for a Scooby Doo villain, which was the only thing I saw that truly achieved Manimal-esque heights.
  • Bad acting. I’m sure that all the nice people on the cast of the show struggled just as much as I did to take it seriously, but for people supposedly fighting for the safety of the free world constantly facing torture and death, they sure don’t display a lot of urgency, emotion or concern for their own welfare. Maybe this is one of the drawbacks of setting the tone for your series by casting a supermodel as the lead? I suppose now is as good a time as any to show you a 2001 picture of Russia’s biggest Femme fan.
  • Vagueness. Listen, the spy genre thrives on nitty-gritty specifics. Most people can only fantasize about being a globetrotting, crime-fighting action hero, but espionage fiction tantalizes us with the possibility that such people actually exist and are out fighting for the best interests of the world, or at least the best interests of a particular country. The thing is that all fantasies live and die in the details. We want to know about the exotic locales. We want to know what the bad guys are like. We want to know the crimes they’ve committed, and we want to know about their cool lair of villainy, and we want them to have henchmen. We want spy tricks and gadgets and tradecraft, dammit. Of course, since we’re watching Femme, we get absolutely none of those things. When Birkoff finds The Cardinal, he is in a non-specified Northern European country. Look, I realize on-location shooting is prohibitively expensive and even creating a convincing mock-up in a Toronto soundstage is pushing it. But throw me a bone. Have The Cardinal’s base look like something other than the basement of a community college. Tell me that the Finnish ambassador is very upset. Make the bad guys somehow distinguishable from any of the other endless parade of bad guys featured on this show. They’re just not even trying with this.
  • No one to root for. Ah, the perennial challenge of the gritty antihero. Over the years, the writers decided to make things more interesting by establishing that Section bosses like Operations are 100% okay with torturing and killing people to get the job done. In fact, Operations almost tortures Birkoff in this episode and has Hillinger killed. The problem that develops is that George and Hillinger’s beef with the main characters winds up being entirely justified. Operations is a megalomaniac constantly pushing the boundaries of his role within the organization and Hillinger was straight-up kidnapped from his home as a snot-nosed teenager so that his government could exploit his technological finesse. I’d be pissed, too, but it’s hard to applaud the two of them actively sabotaging the effort to catch the leader of a notorious terrorist cell to one-up their rivals. I guess you can put your stock in the front-line goons like Nikita and Birkoff, but they’re trapped in an amoral organization that sees them as expendable cannon fodder with no chance of getting out. Even though the stakes are life and death, it feels like there are no stakes because the assholes have all the power and the grunts can do nothing to change that. I do think the show is capable of profitably exploiting that dynamic—I was heartened to see that happen in the third season premiere—but it isn’t happening here.

Final Judgment: 2/10. Yes, it’s worse than Agent X. I like pulpy, action-oriented spy fiction. I really do. The sad thing is, I haven’t seen anything yet that convinces me that it can be done well on television. The Americans is great, but it’s much more psychological when compared to something like The Bourne Identity. Please, TV: prove me wrong.

NEXT TIME: I review a stone-cold classic episode of All In The Family!

Case Study 60: La Femme Nikita, Episode 80–“Line In The Sand”

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

As you may or may not be aware, in the spring of 2011 there was a moderately well-received action blockbuster starring Bradley “No, I’m Not Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds or One Of The Hemsworths” Cooper. In some quarters, it was received as a welcome breath of fresh air, since it was original IP in a mainstream movie marketplace glutted with sequels, remakes and reboots. (It wasn’t that original, though—it’s a loose adaptation of a novel.) Of course, the natural thing to do when you have a creative and fresh movie is to stretch its premise out into twenty-two episodes of TV. Despite its dubious origins, Limitless isn’t terrible. It shares the idea of a preternaturally talented and intelligent protagonist reluctantly collaborating with the FBI with Blacklist and it takes the notion of a thinly drawn high-concept sci-fi crime fighting mechanism from Person Of Interest, but it’s more fun and enjoyable than either of those shows, which are big hits in the world of crime procedurals. In light of that fact, CBS cancelled it after one season, because we can’t have nice things.

Strengths:

  • Compelling premise. Hey, if you’re going to go high-concept, you better have a good concept. For the most part, Limitless delivers, despite brazenly flying in the face of neurology. You see, the action here hinges on vagabond schlub Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) getting access to an experimental new drug called NZT, which unlocks “the hidden potential of the human brain.” They might as well have had him get zapped with a super-powered cosmic magic ray, because this is effectively a superpower. It makes him one of the smartest men on the planet, able to think 20 steps ahead, process information at light speed, recall anything perfectly and provide effective couples counseling. (I wish that last part was a joke.) This fantasy is especially compelling in an age of information overload. Even before the Internet, writers like Borges were imagining the insanity of trying to extract all the world’s knowledge from an infinite library. Who knows what good old Jorge would have said about Wikipedia? And the possibilities are especially, erm, limitless for CBS’ beloved crime procedural. Which leads me to…
  • Brian Finch. Brian’s a fun protagonist for a show like this, because he’s just a regular, goofy guy who plays guitar, cares about his family and friends and seems to have a weird thing for puppets. This is in marked contrast to protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Bobby Goren who appear to have, in D&D parlance, minmaxed: because they’re so preternaturally intelligent, they never learned how to interact normally with people and wind up being aloof, unrelatable assholes. Brian is genuinely likable partially due to the fact that every day the NZT wears off and he goes back to being “normal.” This isn’t to take some anti-intellectual posture where I valorize lowest-common denominator stupidity, because the crime procedural version of “smart” leads us to cartoon characters like Sherlock Holmes who bear no resemblance to actual, intelligent problem solving. When he’s high, Brian’s just as cartoonish, but at least we can chalk it up to the fact that he ingested a pill that looks like a contact lens.
  • Serviceable plot. This episode gives us an effective example of a high-quality plot for a crime procedural, which is to say that despite being fairly by the numbers it does what it’s there to do: it provides some fun crime-fighting texture and gives us an emotional hook. The FBI’s case du jour starts as a routine meth lab bust, but instead of drug dealers, they find a right-wing militia planning on building a dirty bomb. The emotional hook and the window into the case are provided by one Chris Garper (Derek Goh), the innocent younger brother of one of the terrorists. Brian establishes a rapport with him, but it develops that Brian will have to manipulate him into putting himself in harm’s way so the FBI can arrest his brother by implying that they’ll take it easy on the elder Garper, since Chris insists he’s not all that bad, dirty bomb notwithstanding. Of course, Chris gets killed and Brian is sad and it all ties into the larger story arc about Brian’s conflicted feelings regarding telling his partner the shocking truth about her father against the wishes of the shadowy overlords that give him a different mysterious drug that staves off the side effects of NZT. It’s convoluted but reasonably competent. But about that partner…

Weaknesses:

  • Jennifer Carpenter. Brian’s partner is Detective Rebecca Harris (Carpenter, Dexter.) As mentioned, she’s given a juicy if contrived backstory involving her father dying of NZT abuse after being part of a secret pilot program to test the drug, a fact the FBI concealed from Harris. As back stories go, it’s not exactly going to light the world on fire, but it’s better than nothing, and I’m sure other Limitless cast members like Hill Harper (CSI: NY) or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Scarface) would make hay out of it. But Carpenter comes off like Acting Robot #12812. It turns out that she’s fine at spitting out lines about terrorists encrypting data via steganography but when it comes time for actual feelings she’s got jack squat. Her burgeoning romantic relationship with the FBI’s physical combat trainer Agent Casey Rooks (Desmond Harrington, Dexter, again) is none too promising.
  • Over-the-top graphics. Oof. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is the network that gave us CSI, the show famous for up-close-and-personal computer generated images of poison slowly spreading into someone’s liver or a bullet flying through a carotid artery. This might be helpful for visual learners, but the rest of us can just take your word for it. Limitless is all about cutesy-poo graphics that tell us what’s going on inside Brian’s head. When he tells Chris about how the FBI will rehabilitate his brother post-arrest, the lies he spins are shown to us in videos embedded in cartoon speech bubbles next to Brian’s head while he narrates, presumably because the writers didn’t feel like actually scripting the conversation. When Brian breaks surveillance etiquette by guzzling down too much cranberry juice, we’re given a jovial illustration of his overtaxed bladder. When he analyzes a computer screen full of phone numbers, they fly around his head in different colors. Look, if you think your show’s script is boring, work on the writing. Don’t try and flummox the viewer with a bunch of flashy visuals. It just makes it seem like you think the audience is stupid.

Final Judgment: 6/10. Limitless is charming enough that I’d watch more but not so charming that I’d recommend it to someone that isn’t a fan of crime procedurals to begin with. It doesn’t fully escape the aspects of the genre that have grown stale.

NEXT TIME: In a stunning development, I’m going to continue reviewing shows that are currently on the air and new for the 2015-2016 TV season (now that we’re a month away from the 2016-2017 season.) Come back next time to hear about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!

Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”