SAN FRANCISCO – I’m with Alan Sepinwall and Ryan McGee when it comes to the evils of referring to a TV episode as a “gamechanger.” The frequency with which game-changing episodes actually change the game for the series in question is low.
It’s not like there aren’t TV episodes that fit the bill. “Alias” got rid of SD-6. “Lost” began doing flash-forwards instead of flashbacks. The gang on “The O.C.” discovered Rooney. Depending on how loosely you define a change of the game, it happens sometimes, but not nearly as often as hype-loving showrunners or promotional departments would want you to think.
I mention this because part of me wants to tease “Nikita” fans with a warning that next Thursday’s episode, titled “Covenants,” is a gamechanger.
It’s not. It’s *really* not. But it’s definitely a pivotal episode with many elements that are sure to excite and potentially enrage some fans of the first-year series.
Knowing that “Nikita” would be screening “Covenants” at WonderCon on Friday (April 1) afternoon, I went back and watched the season’s most recent string of episodes, dating back to the last two episodes of 2010 and the full compliment of 2011 episodes. It seemed like the least I could do, especially since I abandoned “Nikita” after four or five episodes that all felt basically identical. I didn’t hate those episodes. Far from it. But in a Thursday 9 p.m. time slot that also includes various NBC comedies, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Fringe”/”Bones” and whatever shows I didn’t get to watch in the 8 p.m. hour, “Nikita” just fell victim to the limitations of my DVR. Along the way, various people I trust to various degrees tried telling me that “Nikita” had turned a corner and become really good, a contention that left me nodding politely and figuring on a summer marathon, counting on the show’s likely renewal. This WonderCon screening just gave me an excuse to push up my timetable a bit. There are still a handful of fall episodes that I missed, so there are a few things that I only understand from the “Previously on ‘Nikita'” clips, but I feel like I have a pretty good sense of the direction the show took after I left.
Click through for something of a midseason review of “Nikita,” as well as some thoughts on next Thursday’s episode, keeping spoilers to an absolutely minimum, I promise… [No such promises on not spoiling earlier episodes.]
Here’s the thing about next Thursday’s “Nikita”: It would be a gamechanger if “Nikita” had ever fully committed to and succeeded in establishing what its game was in the first place. You can’t change a game you’ve only been playing for 16 episodes and frequently playing with only middling success.
The things I liked during my marathon were also the things I liked when I positively reviewed the pilot.
Maggie Q is unquestionably a star and her ability to carry this vehicle has only become more impressive as the series has delved into Nikita’s personal history. With the exception of a couple bad wigs and accents, we haven’t hit the limits of what Maggie Q can handle, whether we’re talking about stunt work or actual acting (though her emotive performances tend to be better than her dialogue-driven work, which makes sense if you think about her background).
There had been indications that Maggie Q was this good, but Lyndsy Fonseca is a total surprise, even if you happened to really like her in “Kick Ass” or to admire the way she sits on a couch on “How I Met Your Mother.” Alex has a twisted past and Fonseca has been mighty impressive playing the dark sides of that drug addiction and abuse. If I have a reservation, it’s that Fonseca doesn’t play “normal” nearly as well, so I don’t quite understand how a psychological expert as apparently brilliant as Melinda Clarke’s Amanda hasn’t seen right through her. The character is supposed to be a chameleon, so I can’t just shrug off this awkwardness.
“Nikita” has done good an interesting work playing around with time to unfold the details of Nikita and Alex’s pasts, both together and separately and the weekly game of “How is this week’s mission going to thematically justify the flashbacks” is sometimes fun. Unfortunately, the present-tense missions have been — to me at least — much less engaging than the flashbacks that shaped the characters. The weekly game of “What international diplomat/ruler/scientist are we going to kill/not-kill this week” has barely made a ripple. The show’s need to establish its premise through that opening run of mission-of-the-week episodes is a big part of what made me bail. And even in later episodes when things were supposed to be “better,” the flashback stories were rich distractions from missions that were beat-for-beat identical almost every week, right down that that reliable moment when Shane West’s Michael and Nikita would see each other from across a room, sneer and part ways.
The season’s one big shocking moment, Alex needing to kill Ashton Holmes’ Thom, was less an effective piece of storytelling and more an acknowledgment of how poorly the show was handling the world of Division. Alex spent maybe a week being guilting about shooting her possible love interest and then moved on, realizing that Thom wasn’t even slightly integral to her life or to the show. Tiffany Hines’ Jaden has become a non-factor and as much as I respect Clarke and Aaron Stanford as actors, “Nikita” alternates between showcase episodes for Amanda and Seymour and then episodes where they barely appear and their absence isn’t felt in the storytelling in the slightest. Xander Berkeley has never been adequately used. The “Alias” model was never a perfect match for “Nikita,” but when you compare SD-6 to Division, you get some inkling of what “Nikita” has been doing wrong all season long.
As fans know, the show’s last new episode aired back in February and “Echoes” ended with Nikita returning home to her mansion/hideaway/training-den and discovering Michael sitting in what would be a living room of a normal house. Uh-oh! When I saw this key twist, my first reaction was, “Already?” and my second reaction was “It’s about time.” Had “Nikita” been more nuanced in its treatment of Division and that half of Alex/Nikita’s life, their discovery by Michael could have been pushed until at least the first season finale and possibly later, but under the current circumstances, they weren’t making organic progress in this direction, so there was no reason not to just skip a few steps and see if the new paradigm might work better than the old one.
“Covenants” is all about the “Well now what?” of things. Obviously now that Michael is in Nikita’s house and presumably knows about her relationship with Alex, things have to change. “Covenants” takes the cliffhanger of the last episode and uses it to slide around a number of pieces on the chessboard and as the episode ended, I felt like “Nikita” had a clarity that it maybe never had previously. That’s encouraging.
You know what isn’t encouraging? “Covenants” is a Michael-centric episode and that can only mean one thing: Lots and lots of Shane West growling. When I watched the pilot and West delivered every line of dialogue in the same monotone growl with the same pinched expression, I really though it was the kind of thing that could quickly be finessed out in subsequent episodes. I got that he was brooding and that he was trying to be macho, but it was a laughable acting choice, one that a director other than Danny Cannon might have scared out of him immediately. The reason why we tolerate Christian Bale doing his Batman growl is because Batman is a character being played by Bruce Wayne and Bale’s Bruce Wayne is totally different. After 17 episodes, West hasn’t added any other shadings, even in flashbacks. We haven’t heard about the horrible accident to his throat that left him unable to talk like a human. And, in the episodes I’ve seen, nobody’s made fun of the character for being so laughable (again, there are those episodes I still haven’t seen that may have been 100% Michael parody). I think that West’s performance has been the cause for the rise in Nikita/Alex shipping, because what kind of fan of romance would possibly want Nikita to end up with this growling pill.
In “Covenants,” we learn a lot about why Michael’s in such pain. It explains the character’s psychology, but that doesn’t justify West’s performance.
But enough complaints. “Covenants” also brings us closer to payoffs of previously introduced elements like Kasim and all of the stuff with Ari and Gogol that I actually don’t care about, but that the writers seem invested in. It introduces (or reintroduces?) a new MacGuffin that gives Nikita a little purpose other than just that ever-nebulous “revenge” or the only-slightly-more-specific “bringing down Division.”
Anyway, I don’t know if this was a tease for next week’s “Nikita” or my re-review of the series or what. Take your pick, I suppose.
By Daniel Fienberg – ‘Covenants’ takes the show in a new direction