One hesitates to use a word like primal in connection with The CW, a network whose core ethos appears limited to the transformative powers of fashion and product placement. But Nikita, The CW's new action drama about broody chick assassins, undeniably taps into some profoundly mythic stream in Western consciousness.
In the past 20 years, this fable of teenage angst coupled with feminist rage has been the basis of a hit film (La Femme Nikita, 1990), a hit American remake (Point of No Return, 1993) and a hit U.S. cable TV series (La Femme Nikita, 1997-2001). Freud asked what women want; the answer, clearly, is a 9mm Glock with a good silencer.
But putting aside for a moment questions about whether it signifies the imminent collapse of Western civilization and even the human reproductive impulse, this version of Nikita, the debut of which aired Thursday but repeats Friday, can provide a rollicking, if slightly psychotic, good time.
As always, the title character — played this time by martial-arts star Maggie Q — is a troubled street kid rescued from Death Row by an ultra- secret government intelligence agency, and then blackmailed into a life as a vicious assassin.
But where the previous Nikitas have focused on the heroine's dawning moral sensibilities and her attempts to leave the agency, this version starts after her escape. Instead of hiding, she's fighting back, sending an infiltrator back into the agency to destroy it and free the other slave-assassins. That counterpunching necessarily brings Nikita into conflict with some of her old friends.
"You're going to have to kill your way through a whole lot of people you know," one warns.
A fascinating if wildly fractured debate on the conflict between loyalty and duty is one of the new twists The CW has brought to the Nikita tale. One official of the intelligence agency (known here as the Division) lectures recruits that their lessons in garroting and throat-slitting will help them "learn how to serve your country instead of just yourself."
Another official, though, says that lesson is not the point at all: They should kill out of team spirit, in support of their assassination-academy buddies. "We're not murderers, we're 'protectors,'" she insists. The whole thing sounds like a weird Twilight Zone bar argument between JFK ("Ask not what your country can do for you ...") and E.M. Forster ("If the time ever comes when I must choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I shall have the courage to betray my country").
Amusingly — or appallingly, take your pick — the question of "whether" to murder rather than "why" goes completely unasked. Nikita's body count is staggering, and the closest anybody comes to expressing a qualm is when an over-enthusiastic Division agent shoots a man during interrogation. "I was talking to him," the agent's boss huffily objects. Just because you're a homicidal maniac doesn't mean you don't need good manners.
You needn't have a Nieztschean fixation on the philosophic underpinnings of wanton slaughter to enjoy Nikita. Putting Nikita on the outside of the Division, running moles on the inside, lends intriguing elements of deception and detection to the show. Figuring out the loyalties of new recruits Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca, Desperate Housewives, Kick-Ass) and Jaden (Tiffany Hines, Teen Nick's Beyond the Break) is never easy. Even Division head shrink Amanda (Melinda Clarke, The O.C.) seems to have an ambiguous agenda. And Maggie Q is a shoo-in for the Emmy as Existentially Troubled Young Assassin We'd Most Like To Get Our Butt Kicked By.