If Nielsen ratings are to be believed (and in my opinion, they're frequently not), less than two million people are currently watching The CW's "Nikita" on Friday nights (8 p.m. ET). Primetime ratings are down across the board, and The CW's share is lower than most on any given night, let alone the dead zone of Friday, but I still find myself struggling to explain why this tenacious spy drama, now in its second season, has failed to catch on with viewers.
It's certainly not because of strong competition on rival networks at 8 p.m., where Fox's "The Finder" has failed to make a mark and NBC and ABC air unimaginative reality fare unlikely to capture a genre audience's attention. A niche network and lack of advertising dollars are the most likely culprits, since the fault certainly doesn't lie with the show's stellar cast, production crew or writing team, who manage to create a slick, smart, stunt-laden hour of television every week, on what I suspect is a far tighter budget than the likes of "Alias" or even the short-lived (and vastly inferior) "Undercovers" ever had to contend with.
What frustrates me most about the lack of appreciation for "Nikita," though, is that it's serving up something that's currently painfully lacking elsewhere in primetime; strong, flawed, relatable female characters -- three of whom are in lead roles, in fact. With Maggie Q as the titular rogue assassin, Lyndsy Fonseca as her protégé Alex and Melinda Clarke as Amanda, one of their most formidable antagonists, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more action-heavy series so driven by women with agency. All three have the ability to wield their sexuality (and their fists) as a weapon, but the camera never objectifies them -- you're as likely to find a shirtless man as you are a scantily-clad woman. Considering they're spies who are occasionally forced to use their bodies as currency in the name of their missions, the costumes and settings never seem gratuitous.
The April 20 episode, "Wrath," perfectly epitomizes everything the show is doing right, and I'm not exaggerating when I call it a flawless hour of television. Deftly directed by Jeffrey Hunt and with a taut, razor-sharp script by Albert Kim, the episode effortlessly flows from quiet, self-contained character beats to moments of high drama and simmering tension, allowing Q to explore the depths of her character in heart-wrenching, visceral ways that we've never seen before. It's a shame that awards bodies are too elitist to recognize the stellar acting work that goes on in a number of The CW's dramas, because Q's alternately restrained and explosive work in "Wrath" is worthy of any Emmy shortlist.
Without revealing too much about the episode's twists, the plot concerns a man that Nikita brought down five years earlier, an arms dealer named Nicholas Brandt (Rick Ravanello), who has spent his time incarcerated sharpening the ax he has to grind against her. Nikita's former boss, Percy (Xander Berkeley), decides to spring Brandt from his Guantanamo-esque prison, offering him revenge against Nikita in exchange for a dangerous weapon. Naturally, after five years, Brandt has some fairly colorful ideas about how to get even with Nikita, but the brilliance of this episode is less in its concept and more in its execution. A number of other shows (and far too many movies) have dealt with the torture of female characters in ways that are excessive at best and perverse at worst, but Hunt and Kim sidestep every potential pitfall I could've envisaged. There's no need to strip Nikita to her underwear or infer the possibility of rape to demean her; every interaction between Brandt and our heroine is character-driven and wholly believable, all the more compelling for the lack of feculence it's presented with.
While "Wrath" offers us great insight into Nikita's character and motivations, it also does an excellent job of showcasing the support system she's surrounded herself with. From her lover, Michael (Shane West) to their resident tech-genius sidekick, Birkhoff (Aaron Stanford), their ex-Navy SEAL ally Sean (Dillon Casey) and Alex, the episode reminds us just how many people are wholly devoted to Nikita and her mission, each of them well-defined and unique in their own right. For an episode that's only 45 minutes long sans commercials, Kim's script impressively balances this talented ensemble, giving each of them a moment to shine. West and Q always bring out the best in each other, even when their characters are at odds, and it's West's solid presence that really gives Q an anchor to explore the previously uncharted depths of her character this week. Their scenes are heartbreaking in all the best ways, and for an episode with some undeniably dark subject matter, it still manages to feel like an uplifting narrative.
What makes Nikita such a worthy role model is not that she's some flawless superheroine who never bleeds or cries; quite the opposite. She's a woman who has been forced to do terrible things in the name of her country; a former drug addict; someone who feels unworthy of love and is incapable of living a normal life. She considers herself a monster because of the lives she's taken, and yet, her capacity for good, her intense loyalty and her fierce protectiveness ensure that she continues fighting the good fight when she'd probably rather give up and run away to a desert island (or put a gun to her head). She's not a martyr who can barely function without wallowing in self-pity; she has friends and a lover and is capable of laughter, and she's also stubborn, judgmental and arrogant. None of these traits are mutually exclusive, and none of them make her more or less worthy of love or pity. In other words, she's a fully-formed character of infinite contradictions, just like an actual woman, and that is "Nikita's" greatest strength, as both a character and a show.
In my mind, the only series that even comes close to replicating "Nikita's" empowered female ensemble is Syfy's "Lost Girl," which my colleague Mo Ryan has examined in-depth. Like "Nikita," the Canadian fantasy drama features a kick-ass female lead who owns her sexuality, is capable of protecting herself and others, and has darker impulses that she tries to ignore in her quest for normalcy. Plus, "Lost Girl" also boasts a supporting cast that places primary emphasis on the bonds of female friendship in addition to heterosexual (or, in "Lost Girl's" case, bisexual) romance. The difference is, "Lost Girl" is an acquired series, produced by a Canadian network and reaired for US audiences, rather than a US production, which means the onus is still on CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox to find a new, female-driven action series that can meet the standards set by "Nikita," "Alias" and Fox's gone-too-soon "Dark Angel."
If you've yet to give this series a try, I urge you to tune in to "Wrath" and let "Nikita" charm you -- it's a serialized drama, but the battle between good and evil is universal enough that the game should be recognizable, even if the players aren't. If you want to start from the beginning, head to Netflix or Hulu Plus, where Season 1 is available in its entirety, and you can catch up on Season 2 via iTunes or cwtv.com. There are so few intelligent, female-led dramas on TV these days (and even fewer with an action angle) that "Nikita" should serve as an example to other networks as well as its audience, because we desperately need this show, and others like it, to keep on kicking ass for years to come.
"Nikita" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.