By Ken Tucker
Updated September 09, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

Following a clever, crackling-energy season premiere of The Vampire Diaries, Nikita made its own crisp debut on Thursday night. Slick in the best way, Nikita is a smart new take on the gorgeous-but-agonized-assassin character. Maggie Q’s skinny, slinky Nikita started out the evening already gone-rogue, rebelling against the organization, called Division, that once controlled her.

Full of bone-crunch and gun-blaze, Nikita tiptoes quietly only when it deals with the concept of Division. It’s a division of our government, designed to carry out black-ops jobs, and thus it implies something the previous movie and TV versions of Nikita didn’t: a connection to the contemporary war on terror. Nikita says she was “forced by the government to be an assassin.” And one trainee tells another (Lyndsy Fonseca’s Alex), “You’re here to kill for the Man, honey” — that is, for the United States. (Congrats to whichever writer decided to revive the counterculture term “the Man.”) But then the series lets our government off the hook by making it clear that Division is “a weapon [the U.S.] has lost control of.” In other words, Nikita has gone rogue from a rogue agency, putting all her fighting firmly on the side of God and country.

And what good action it is. The pilot had at least two standout sequences, one in which Nikita dispatches two men in a bathroom in a superbly choreographed, in-close fight scene; and a big, well-staged shoot-out at a lavish party. Maggie Q doesn’t need the little red bikini she wore in the opening minutes to convince us she’s formidable — her action-film training is used to full effect here, and I hope that continues every week.

Shane West, as roguish Division agent Michael, has a carefully trimmed five-o’clock-shadow goatee, and maybe some of that hair is ingrown, because he keeps his voice even more nonstop scratchy than it was on Once and Again. We’re supposed to think he’s all macho and menace, but Michael just seems like a pretty boy doing a constant Dirty Harry imitation. Add the fact that he has to growl corny lines such as “Finding her when she doesn’t want to be found is next to impossible!” and West has his work cut out for him.

West also heads up one of Nikita‘s most dangerous subplots: He helps oversee Division’s recruiting wing, which snatches up promising young candidates — most prominently, Fonseca’s Alex — to turn them into tightly controlled, robotic, eager-to-please assassins. The show put a spin on this: Alex turned out to be planted within Division by Nikita herself; the kid is a kind of double agent, Nikita’s mole within Division. But Nikita is going to have to watch that sort of stuff; if this aspect of the show’s budding mythology becomes extensive — well, that way lies Dollhouse.

As a first episode, however, Nikita had a lot of fun and momentum. If it can spruce up the lame dialogue while retaining the amusingly over-the-top ideas (Nikita twists her lipstick and — POW! — it’s a remote-control device that blows up a nearby car), the show will continue to be worth watching.

What did you think of Nikita? Are you ready to climb aboard next week, or not?

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