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One of the biggest problems facing any TV series is how to reinvent old story types that passed up cliche years ago and became the sort of thing audiences roll their eyes at. The CW's new spy drama Nikita - airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. - doesn't even try to reinvent the stories it's ripping off, most notably the film the series is based on and the TV show Alias. The basic idea of a woman who is recruited by a shadowy government organization that trains her to be an assassin is all the original film, as are the various romantic complications this woman finds herself in. But the entirety of the backstory? The dead fiancee, the fact that the shadowy organization has basically broken free of the government and started working for itself, the fact that this woman has gone rogue? That's pretty much all Alias. Whether Nikita works depends mostly on execution.

Fortunately, most of Nikita is executed very, very well. The most impressive thing about it is the level of complexity the producers are willing to give the story structure. The audience has seen the story of a woman who's recruited by an organization and then turns on that organization when she realizes its true aim long after she's become their weapon. The audience has seen this story many times. At the same time, there's a certain appeal to the origin story, to finding out just how something came to be. The Alias pilot - one of the best pilots ever - solves this problem mostly by having lead character Sydney Bristow already be a super spy but having the pilot be the origin story of her time as a double agent. It works relatively well, and you can see Nikita clumsily aping it here and there.

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But Nikita doesn't want to completely be rid of the idea of someone going from homeless waif to ass-kicking super-assassin. So it's figured out a way to have its cake and eat it too, and that keeps the pilot feeling propulsive even when not much is going on. As the mysterious organization - called Division - spends its time trying to track down Nikita (Maggie Q), the show also takes the audience inside Division, to reveal the people who work there and the people who train them by hooking up with a completely new character, a drug addict and murder suspect named Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca). The show has solved the problem of how to approach this sort of narrative and how to approach the character of a strong woman with simultaneously strong emotions by essentially splitting Sydney Bristow into two. Nikita is the awesome, death-defying half, the girl who can enter any situation and take it over simply by being the calmest, coolest person in the room. And Alex is the passionate, emotional side of the character, the person who's skeptical about the new role being thrust on her.

The biggest problem with Nikita's pilot is that so much happens that the show constantly feels compelled to explain it all to the audience, to the point where many scenes consist of nothing but exposition. The first 20 minutes, in particular, suffer from this problem. Nikita tells the entirety of her backstory to various characters. Alex's new boss, Michael (Shane West, trying way too hard to play gruff and taciturn), tells her all about what she's going to be doing. Nikita improbably explains the true mission of Division to a man she's saved from their bullets and delivered to the United Nations. All of this expository dialogue weighs the show down, and it feels like it was placed in there by network notes. The audience doesn't really need the answers to all of these questions. It would probably be just as well if they were delivered in episodes to come.

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Fortunately, Q and Fonseca make an enjoyable duo at the show's center. Fonseca, in particular, takes hold of her scenes in a way that her previous work wouldn't suggest. She doesn't so much as get to slap someone in the pilot, but she always gives off the sense that once Alex is trained, she'll be completely deadly, and that's not an easy task. Q, meanwhile, will probably get written off by some viewers as too cold for the part, but it's impressive how much she seems to play a woman with a single-minded desire for revenge. The one scene where she lets her mask slip just a bit quickly ends when she shoots a man she used to love in the shoulder, all the better to help him out (or so she says). Q's never had a role that's asked her to play much beyond "hot girl who kicks butt," and while she doesn't get much beyond that here, there is a sense that this character will have more depth, and she'll be able to handle that depth.

The supporting cast is largely well-chosen. Melinda Clarke is predictably very good as Division's resident bitch goddess. Xander Berkeley plays the part that apparently always makes casting directors think, "Hey, couldn't we get Xander Berkeley to play the morally questionable boss?" Ashton Holmes is surprisingly believable as a new operative who's nervous about his first mission. Only West, who seems to be trying to stretch his wings, seems out of his element here. He's put on Christian Bale's Batman voice for no apparent reason, and he glowers a lot. It doesn't make him seem tough. It makes him seem like a little boy playing the local cattle rustler in a game of cowboys. Since much of the plot will hinge on his character going forward, this is a concern.

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Nikita has a good pilot, but it never makes the step up to being a great one. Remember how in the Alias pilot, there was so much TIME between when the audience first met Sydney Bristow and when she first started punching guys in the face? All of that build-up made the inevitable payoff all the better, and Nikita never finds a payoff as good as the one in the Alias pilot. In some ways, it feels like all build-up, and while the final twist in the episode suggests that the story of the series could be richer than expected (particularly for a show that's so derivative), this is very much just an introductory story that doesn't take a lot of risks. There's some fun, hard-boiled dialogue (like Clarke's character talking about how every door just opens to another room in Division once you work for the group), but the action sequences - directed by the generally solid Danny Cannon - feel curiously muted. Nikita's pilot is such a long drum-roll that when the payoff comes, it's probably going to feel incredibly disappointing.

Stray observations:

  • I've seen this one twice now. I have to admit that the first time through, I didn't see the twist coming at all, which is rare for me. The second time around, I actually liked the show a little better knowing the twist was coming, so it's entirely possible the second and third episodes will play better with that knowledge in mind.
  • I was not a huge fan of the USA series La Femme Nikita, which wasn't bad or anything but I always felt paled in comparison to Alias. Any fans?
  • I can't help but feel the ensemble is a little too crowded here. I like Aaron Stafford's take on the technogeek, but I don't think the show terribly needs the character.

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