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 28: Agent X–“Pilot”

Original Airdate: November 8th, 2015 on TNT

Based on how often I saw it in press accounts, it would seem that Agent X billed itself to the media as “National Treasure meets The Bourne Identity.” It nails the Treasure tone but drifts rather far afield of the Bourne approach, which makes a spy fantasy seem realistic and plausible. It’s almost as if those two things, while superficially similar, should not have been combined. Agent also bears the inauspicious distinction of being the first show covered on this blog which premiered, had its entire run and was cancelled during the course of Oryx & Cake Boss’ four month existence. Let’s kick it while it’s down!

Strengths

  • Action-oriented thrills. Admittedly, Agent does cram most of this into the cold open and then gets steadily worse as the hour progresses, but there’s derring-do, close combat in elevators, gunplay, rooftop brawls, suspenseful battles atop precarious scaffolding and so forth. It’s good that Agent can supply these things, because otherwise it would have no reason to exist and we’d be in Olsen Twins territory.

Weaknesses

  • Ludicrous. I’d like to believe that Agent was holding out for camp value, but it’s hard to have campy fun while also embracing a solemn duty to protect the innocent American public from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Agent quotes this section of the Constitution, as well it should—the plot hinges on a heretofore unknown secret clause in Article Two wherein the Vice President oversees a high-powered field agent fighting against whatever trolls lurk under the bridges of democracy this week. This very silly premise infects otherwise solid areas of the show as well. In the first half hour, people nearly have their necks broken by someone twisting their legs around them in two separate scenes. The second instance is thanks to legally distinct Black Widow Olga Petrovka (Olga Fonda, Real Steel.) You see, Olga is a former circus contortionist (sounds legit) and when the FBI captures and interrogates her, for some reason they don’t use leg irons—on the famed contortionist—and soon she’s flipping herself over and wrapping her legs around her interrogator. Straight out of the pages of Ludlum, I tells ya!
  • Sharon Stone. Agent introduces us to our first female Vice President. Natalie Maccabee (Stone, Basic Instinct) is an improvement on Sarah Palin but she’s a damn sight worse than Selina Meyer. She’s even worse than that grouchy Christian lady from Scandal. The problem here might be the material (I’m not sure anyone could make much hay of the direction to “have a dignified reaction to the discovery of a secret shrine to Democracy underneath the Vice President’s House”) but most of the looks that cross Stone’s face seem to suggest despair at the tattered remains of her career and not noble perseverance in the face of the FBI director’s daughter being—oh, I won’t even summarize this awful bullshit. Really, I should applaud Stone for not having some kind of personal crisis over her decision to co-produce this turd. I’d be truly surprised if at some point in 2015 she didn’t make a rueful remark about how she used to work with Scorsese.
  • Reactionary. Look, I realize that it was a near inevitability that an action/espionage thriller would presuppose a government that unquestioningly takes it upon itself to act as an exceptionalist policeman to the world, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed. You see, Olga’s boss is international supercriminal Carmen SandieNicolas Volker (Andrew Howard, Limitless.) Somehow, Volker is responsible for a nuclear accident in France, increased guerilla activity in Nigeria and the suicide of the Argentinian Prime Minister, all of which is America’s problem due to reasons. And how can America solve that problem? Only through extrajudicial means, of course! At least the eponymous Agent John Case (Jeff Hephner, Boss) refrains from torturing anyone, KEIFER.

Motivation: Knowledge, as Case is frantically trying to discover the location of the FBI director’s kidnapped daughter. Dammit TNT, you tricked me into plot summary.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Agent X is perfect for the person in your life who has already watched every episode of 24 and also every action movie made in the last twenty years.

NEXT TIME: I cannot continue to ignore my duty to write about an endless stream of children’s superhero cartoons, so look forward to a review of the 1990s Iron Man animated series!

Case Study 28: Agent X–“Pilot”