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''La Femme Nikita'' makes a welcome return on USA

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Peta Wilson, La Femme Nikita
Femme Nikita: Lance Staedler

”La Femme Nikita” makes a welcome return on USA

Every tale of espionage — from James Bond to John le CarrĂ© — manages to come up with some new, delightfully euphemistic way of saying ”kill.” On the USA network’s ”La Femme Nikita,” that verb is ”to cancel.” And cancellation is nearly what happened to ”Nikita” last spring — until legions of fans protested, inundating network with sunglasses (the heroine’s signature accessory) and email pleas. So the show’s producers recalled cast and crew to shoot eight more episodes (beginning Jan. 7 at 10 p.m.) — a mini fifth season meant to provide, as one executive put it, ”closure” for fans and big ratings for the basic cable outlet.

I’m one of those fans, and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming back the sexiest, most addictive show on TV. The appeal of ”Nikita” isn’t hard to explain: The series debuted amid the post ”Xena: Warrior Princess” slew of girl power action shows such as the WB’s ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (itself, like ”Nikita,” a superior spinoff of a flawed movie). The title character, played by the athletic, smoky voiced Peta Wilson, is a strong, wily, complex heroine who showed that even gun toting secret agents struggle with relationship and career issues.

It’s interesting to note that while the end of the Cold War put a damper on spy stories (like the Bond movies), ”Nikita,” with its feminine point of view, has thrived and even managed to revamp the genre. No, this isn’t TV’s first stylish cloak and dagger series: ”Secret Agent” and ”The Prisoner,” which both starred Patrick McGoohan, got there in the ’60s. But things have changed, and thankfully, the role of women on these shows has changed too (if Wilson had been acting back then, she’d have been consigned to the roles of treacherous whore or ornamental victim).

In the current political climate — in which rival ideologies have been replaced by rival corporate strategies — Nikita’s dilemma, her individual struggle to make a difference within an impersonal system, is easier for both men AND women to identify with. Sure, Nikita’s a fantasy figure (those clothes! those shoes!) but she’s one who’s got a lot in common — at least in her attitude toward her job — with modern day wage slaves laboring in bland cubicle farms. (Where, I suspect, a lot of those email pleas to save ”Nikita” came from.)

Nikita’s transformation from junkie waif into ace of spies began (as it did in the original movie) when she was jailed and forcibly recruited by a secret antiterrorist group called Section One. Trained as an operative and an assassin — a job she hates, and one she knows she is temperamentally ill suited for — she must excel or die. To put it plainly, she’s suffering from a monster case of Impostor Syndrome. Emotionally battered by her spymaster/lover, Michael (the brooding Roy Dupuis), Nikita can’t even tell if what she’s feeling for him is love or hate. To her bosses’ consternation, though, her moral compass — which ought to make her a liability in the field — somehow makes her an even better agent, albeit one who’s often able to subtly subvert the goals of Section One. While her superiors see the world coldly, Nikita has soulful intelligence that allows her to see both the big picture (as Section wants) as well as the human factors that make it up. On her various missions, she’s less of a Superwoman than she is a great improviser.

”Nikita” has also thrived, I think, due to its virtually intact lineup of supporting characters, whose claustrophobically interlinked relationships, sometimes make ”Nikita” play like a perverse family sitcom. There’s Walter (Don Francks) and Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson), Section’s unsung technical wizards, who bicker like a pair of teenage brothers. Madeline (Alberta Watson), the quietly intimidating deputy of Section One, was Nikita’s only female role model, but one with whom she was forever in conflict. (Madeline made a defiant exit in what was to have been ”Nikita”’s final episode, but on a show like this, that doesn’t mean she won’t be back.) The treacherous paterfamilias, Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer), is a man too dangerous to live — and too valuable to kill. Chief in Nikita’s affections, though, is the enigmatic Michael, whose expertise as an agent has come at a terrible spiritual price. Nikita, having turned the tables on Section last season, was able to abet his escape from spy servitude — but to make him go, she told him that she never loved him. Michael, no stranger to this kind of manipulation, responded with a shocking, silent gesture: taking a knife and slowly slicing into his face, and allowing a bloody tear to roll down his cheek.

That kind of fetishistic but weirdly affecting signoff is going to be hard to top, but I fully expect ”Nikita” to succeed. The new season begins with the heroine — once again unwillingly — being kicked upstairs to management, with life and death power over her onetime peers. Edward Woodward of the late, lamented ”Equalizer” — another show about an altruistic spy — is set to join the cast. My one complaint: only eight episodes! I know, I know, ”Nikita”’s cast would probably like to get on with their careers. But the show’s fans, I’m afraid, are a bit like Section One: We just can’t let go.

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