Movie: Many times, television shows seem to get worse with subsequent seasons, preferring to play it safe in order to keep from alienating their core audience. This leads to a lot of boring episodes as evidenced by such former televised hits as Hercules: Season 6 or later seasons of Wiseguy and Airwolf that all ended up following a set formula and eventually killing off such solid potential by suits in corporate meetings. One show that managed to do something different, and thereby build an audience of super loyal fans that side stepped the usual geekiness of the fans of shows like Star Trek was La Femme Nikita. Lasting five seasons due to an outpouring of support by the loyal fans, the show was one case where the television show was miles ahead of its original movie counterpart, so unlike the watered down versions we're usually subjected to. Here's what I said when I reviewed Season One last year:
"The French movie centered on a woman who was part of a burglary/murder of a pharmacy. Hoping to score some great drugs and maybe cash, she joined a few other losers and tried to knock the place off. After a grisly shoot out, she is caught and sentenced to die. In a twisted form of reprieve, she is recruited by a secret organization that does all the things that governments do, such as assassinations, with the proviso that she will be killed if she doesn't do everything she's told. Not exactly a great career choice, huh?
The television series glosses over the origin a bit and makes the lead character, Nikita (Peta Wilson), a street person who scrapes by to make a living. Caught up in circumstances beyond her control, this time innocent of murder, she is trained and put to work for an anti-terrorist unit known only as Section One. Her boss, Michael (Roy Dupuis), ruthless and cold, puts her in situations where if she really can't kill, as she has told him, she'll simply die and be done with. Sounds a bit like working in a major corporation to me (except for the death part)."
Well, after a false start involving a recall of epic proportions, I finally landed a copy of La Femme Nikita: Season Two for review. I'll minimize spoilers but keep in mind that unless I say nothing at all about what happens, I have to delve into some so-called "classified" information about the show. In general though, there exists a secret agency so important that it's not known about by the general public. Founded by the top intelligence guru of our time, Adrian, it has since been taken over by a man known as Paul Wolfe (Eugene Robert Glazer from The New Twilight Zone.) but only safely referred to as 'Operations'. He is as ruthless a man as has ever lived and demands complete loyalty of his subordinates or he cancels them (a euphemism for killing them). Under his rule, the spy agency known as Section One runs a tight ship, recruiting employees from prison who learn the score right away that they belong; mind, body and soul to him and Section One.
Operations' leading strategist and right hand assistant is Madeline Sand (Alberta Watson, known initially for her role in The Outer Limits.). She is nearly as ruthless as he is and in the second season seems to harden just a little bit as her last family ties pass away (her usually unseen mother in Psychic Pilgrim). A former lover of Operations, she is not above sacrificing anything, or anyone, to accomplish a mission. She sees Nikita as too much of a loose cannon for her unorthodox ways as much as a potential rival, especially after being saved by Nikita in New Regime and Mandatory Refusal but every once in awhile, she'll show some of the deadly compassion that usually results in cancellation of an operative.
Next up is a man named only as Walter (Don Francks, a well known voice actor for shows like Rock & Rule.) who is probably the oldest employee of Section One. His expertise is that of the munitions expert who can devise anything if given enough material to work with but also for his uncanny ability to figure out weapons of all sorts, including those used by terrorist organizations. His role in this ongoing drama was to befriend Nikita although with his decades of experience in Section One (and preceding groups that led up to it), trusting him completely would be a folly since the manner of the group is survival at all costs. Still, his unorthodox ways of handling things are something of a mystery to Nikita since such stepping outside of the boundaries is typically met with less than pleasing results.
Next in the supporting cast is Birkoff (Matthew Ferguson of Earth Final Conflict), the resident computer genius. He's younger, and smarter, than the other characters in his field but his lack of cunning and street savvy mark him as something less of a player in the group. He also befriends Nikita and appears to trust her more than anyone in Section One than perhaps Walter but the downside of his trust is that it potentially gets him in trouble with those who flip the switches (and keep a close eye on him). His loyalty is tested in Darkness Visible but he sometimes gets a juicier role as in Inside Out or Fuzzy Logic.
Last but not least, are the two main characters of the show: Nikita (Peta Wilson best known by non-fans of the show for her role in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Michael (Roy Dupuis). Nikita was a junkie falsely imprisoned (in the television version) for killing a police officer and given a choice; work for Section One or die. Choosing the former, she becomes an excellent field operative, second only to Michael in terms of accomplishing whatever mission is assigned, albeit in a somewhat less structured way. The series focuses on her most of the time as she seeks to successfully escape this torturous life of killing, destruction, and routinely risking her life for sometimes flimsy reasons with an on again, off again forbidden romance with Michael that endangers them both. Like a moth to a flame, she can barely resist his combination of good looks, superior intellect, and overall survival skill, although she tries to embrace other men as an escape from his ways too.
Michael, on the other hand, uses all his charms and cool demeanor to enrapture his younger teammate as it is found out he has done for years. He was recruited into Section One by way of his youthful terrorist activities that included killing people with bombs, even though he came from a well off family. We learn more about him in Half Life alone than in most of the first season combined, but his near ruthless nature and skill in multiple fields make him almost a perfect operative, seldom straying from the path laid out for him by Operations and Madeline. In general, he responds to potential threats, like his former mentor Jurgen in the early part of Season Two as the man tries to sway Nikita from his grasp, in the same manner he views all threats, with a deadly response.
With all this discussion on the primary players of the show, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that a lot of great guest stars were also employed during the second season, most notable for me being Nigel Bennet of Lexx and Forever Knight and the lovely Gina Torres, star of both Firefly and Cleopatra 2525. There were others of course but the casting was always a strong suit of the producers for La Femme Nikita; which was likely one of the reasons behind the initial chemistry behind the entire cast that led the series into the hearts and minds of so many fans. Let's face it, the general formula of bad guy poses threat, Section One gets mission, team gets in a jam, team saves the day by ending threat, would get pretty boring if the cast weren't well suited for their roles AND with each other. Thankfully for late comers like me, the show almost always flowed well due to the manner in which each player understood their role and the way the writers accommodated for their individual idiosyncrasies.
La Femme Nikita: Season Two started off answering the cliffhanger of Season One with the return of Nikita, long thought dead. She is forced to give up her life apart from Section One, knowing full well that if it's discovered she wasn't involuntarily away, she'd be cancelled (which brings me to a point that much of the terminology could be applied to television series in general, just as the behavior of the cast could be too; perhaps this was a sly reference to the cut throat nature of the television market or just a coincidence, you decide). This leads her to being evaluated by Michael's former mentor Jurgen and a series of increasingly dangerous escapades where the truth would set Nikita free; free of this mortal coil if you know what I mean.
The second season also gave each of the leads a chance to flesh out their motivations and characters, evolving in ways that weren't always pleasant but certainly in ways that kept me, and likely the massive fan base, on the edge of their seats. The overriding theme of Machiavelli tactics by those around her to do whatever it takes at all costs, even against the better moral judgment she shows, begins to effect the way she views the world ever so slightly, bringing her increasingly closer to the dark side needed to keep alive. Seeing the episodes in only a couple of lengthy sittings, I didn't think any of them were bad with most being a very entertaining look at the antics of Nikita and company for the vaunted Section One. Unlike the previous season's cliffhanger episode, this season managed to end on a high note by offering up three final episodes of truly high caliber; In Between, Adrian's Garden, and End Game, all of which explored relationships of the past for Madeline or Operations, with each side using Nikita to further their own goals. I can hardly wait to check out the third season having watched this one (review forthcoming).
So, with all this entertainment, you have to have known I'd rate it as Highly Recommended. The season set included all the episodes, some decent extras and commentaries; further drawing me into the series that I learned to appreciate last year, long after it had been off the air. For a series on the air between 1997 and 2001, it had a unique approach that worked thanks to the kind of stylish leanings it had although the acting itself was never all that involving (the deadpan manner in which the characters discuss death and killing as they seem to accept the premise wholeheartedly) but if you like spy shows or movies, this had a lot more class than the last several James Bond blockbusters. It was a lot of fun though and seeing the struggle for Nikita's soul between her desire for a normal life and the needs of Section One's soulless machine (with some interesting kinks in the armor though) made the first couple of seasons a lot of fun to watch.
Picture: La Femme Nikita: Season Two was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was originally shot in for television. With so much material on the 6 disc set, my primary concern was if the compression rate would require compromises in picture quality. If the original shows were lacking, all the extras in the world weren't going to make such problems easier to swallow so I was pleased when I finished watching all the episodes to report that the picture quality looked slightly better than Season One. The colors were accurate, the fleshtones solid, and the levels of grain acceptable with no compression artifacts to be seen. There was some pattern noise on occasion but it wasn't common and few of you will notice it unless I direct you towards it (which would be self defeating as it would take you away from the content of the writing). The bonus scenes didn't usually look as polished as those included in the aired versions but even they looked pretty good here.
Episode 1: Hard Landing: (January 4, 1998):
Episode 2: Spec Ops: (January 11, 1998):
Episode 3: Third Person: (January 18, 1998):
Episode 4: Approaching Zero: (February 1, 1998):
Episode 5: New Regime: (March 1, 1998):
Episode 6: Mandatory Refusal: (March 8, 1998):
Episode 7: Half Life: (March 22, 1998):
Episode 8: Darkness Visible: (March 29, 1998):
Episode 9: Open Heart: (April 5, 1998):
Episode 10: First Mission: (April 12, 1998):
Episode 11: Psychic Pilgrim: (May 19, 1998):
Episode 12: Soul Sacrifice: (June 14, 1998):
Episode 13: Not Was: (June 21, 1998):
Episode 14: Double Date: (June 28, 1998):
Episode 15: Fuzzy Logic: (July 5, 1998):
Episode 16: Old Habits: (July 12, 1998):
Episode 17: Inside Out: (July 26, 1998):
Episode 18: Off Profile: (August 2, 1998):
Episode 19: Last Night: (August 9, 1998):
Episode 20: In Between: (August 16, 1998):
Episode 21: Adrian's Garden: (August 23, 1998):
Episode 22: End Game: (August 30, 1998):
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround English with optional English, Spanish or French subtitles for those who care. The audio was again well done with some separation between the channels (though best heard by using headphones) and a decent dynamic range. The vocals were well handled and the music seemed to be more important (both the score and the popular music used) to the background. One thing to note is that the DVD set was recalled over a music rights issue involving a song or two, most notably one from Garbage, that really didn't make a difference to me as a sound-alike song was employed to maintain the same feeling. There are still copies of the original to be found but only the most dedicated of you will be willing to pay the price for what amounts to a minor issue.
Extras: The extras were also decent this time with my favorite extras being the two commentaries included. The first commentary was for the first episode, Hard Landing with executive consultant Joel Surnow, director Jon Cassar, and writer/editor Michael Loceff all contributing their thoughts and anecdotes on the episode as well as the season in general. I think I would've preferred Peta Wilson, Roy Dupuis, and others join in on the commentary(s) and have more of them but I thought they added some value for fans. The second commentary was on the final show of the season, End Game, and they added some further exposition on the season (perhaps more so than the episode itself) but provided a bit of detail that was missed in the first commentary.
My next favorite extra was the series of deleted scenes from various episodes, all with commentary by director Jon Cassar (who didn't direct all the episodes but had a great handle on most of them). They were all short and rarely added a lot of information to the episodes, but fans will like them nonetheless, including;
1) Nikita Saves Michael
2) Angry Operative
3) Dinner Guests
4) Follow My Lead
5) Something Strange Going On
6) Setting A Trap
7) Surprise Meeting
8) Following Michael Home
There was also a gag reel that lasted a few minutes and showed the actors flubbing their lines and a paper insert that detailed facts about the episodes, including date of release, directors, and who wrote them as well as detail the chapter titles.
Final Thoughts: La Femme Nikita: Season Two was highly entertaining, full of action, and managed to convey a far more believable scenario for a futuristic spy show driven less by technology than human drama with the claustrophobic control of Operations and Madeline helping to make the show stand above the crowd of similar shows. With a tagline of "A choice that will change everything.", the season was even better than the first (and not just for the nudity scene by Peta and Roy in the series opener that I liked so much). If you'd like more detail on the season or the show in general, you won't have to look far given the numerous fan sites all over the net but I spent a lot of time looking for the Best Fan Site and if you're interested in the show, that was as good as you'll find (with plenty of unique content) and I strongly recommend you check it out to see what dedicated fans can do to showcase their favorite shows.