'Nikita' at night knocks 'em dead TV: As thousands tune in Sundays at 10 to watch a blond, blue-eyed assassin kill for the common good, they make USA's 'La Femme Nikita' the biggest drama draw on cable.

September 10, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

She kicks, she shoots, she kills. And she looks darn good doing it.

She's Nikita, a blond-haired, blue-eyed assassin whose weekly adventures on the USA network have made "La Femme Nikita" cable's highest-rated drama series. Sentenced to death for a crime she didn't commit, Nikita is rescued at the last minute by a mysterious government agency, cryptically referred to as Section One, that specializes in killing for the common good. Given the choice of either dying (this time for sure) or killing, she chooses the latter. Guided by her enigmatic superior, Michael, Nikita becomes pretty good at what she does -- while never turning down the chance to let viewers know she's far from enjoying it.

"La Femme Nikita," airing Sunday nights at 10, averages about 1.7 million viewers -- subpar by network standards, but up there in the cable universe. Its primarily adult audience is split about 50/50 between men and women, which is good news for advertisers. The actress who plays Nikita, Aussie Peta Wilson, is popping up on talk shows and in magazines all over the place -- including a 12-page spread in the September issue of In Style, where she (looking decidedly un-Nikitaish) models what a host of fashion designers regard as sexy.

And perhaps most telling of all, it's a show the critics hate themselves for loving. A recent poll listed "La Femme Nikita" as the second most popular guilty pleasure among TV critics, behind only the syndicated tabloid news show "Hard Copy" (and ahead of Howard Stern).

"I think that's probably really accurate," says Alberta Watson, who plays Madeline on the show. "We're not looking at [prestige film producers] Ivory and Merchant material here, or really some deep introspective piece of artwork. I think the show is what it is. That it doesn't pretend to be anything else is what makes it fun."

That's some reputation, but not one the show's creators are ready to embrace without reservation.

"I like to think that the show is popular because it's good and because the mood of the show is unique," says Joel Surnow, its executive consultant and writer. "The stories we tell and the characters we've created without sounding immodest, I think it's a fascinating group of people we've created."

True enough. There's Michael (Roy Dupuis), who's probably in love with Nikita but would never compromise her training or her life by letting her find out. There's Madeline, master strategist for Section One, who specializes in playing with the psyches of the recruits (and who, as a young girl, pushed her sister down the stairs and killed her, in a fight over a doll). There's cantankerous -- Walter (Don Francks), who has a thing for gadgets (think James Bond's Q) and for Nikita and just about anything in a skirt. There's the ruthless, mysterious Operations (Eugene Robert Glazer), leader of Section One, who decides whether recruits live or die.

There are fabulous sets, sparse dialogue (the better to get more action in) and an air of mystery and male-female camaraderie that's been a TV staple since at least "The Avengers."

There's also the hint of romance between Nikita -- who, unlike TV's high-rated Xena, seems decidedly heterosexual -- and Michael, who struggles to remain an emotionless cypher.

"Sometimes it feels like I'm playing a ghost," says Dupuis. "He has this logic thing about him that he is pretty good at; he's been living this way for a long time. He tries not to get disturbed by his emotions. There are emotions that he keeps inside, but for him, it's not anybody else's business."

Most of all, there's Nikita, and it's with Peta Wilson that the show lives or dies. Like Lucy Lawless' Xena, she's as strong as any man and takes guff from no one (which helps explain why women watch). But she's also a looker, an attribute the show uses to full advantage: A recent show featured a shower scene that came as close to frontal nudity as commercial television allows.

And unlike the movie that inspired Nikita, in which she was as guilty as guilty can be, Nikita is innocent of any wrongdoing -- a tinker that Surnow thinks makes the show far more accessible than it could have been.

"I loved the movie, but I don't think I would have loved to see that Nikita on a weekly basis," he says. "I felt distanced from her. I would never feel what she is feeling, because she's a killer. If she's an innocent person, I can sympathize with how it feels to be trapped."

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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