When you dial into Nick at Nite's retread pantheon 20 years from now, don't be surprised when you find yourself watching Peta Wilson kicking ass. Never mind Suddenly Susan -- La Femme Nikita is the true Mary Tyler Moore of our times.
The phenomenon began in 1990 with Luc Besson's film Nikita, about an erratic urban punk junkie who offs a cop during a dysfunctional drugstore robbery. Nikita is recruited by Section, a covert governmental anti-terrorist group that makes her one of those mixed-blessing job offers: Be a hired assassin for the rest of your life or be executed.
It's a dominant formula for the ensuing decade: Survival repackaged as "choice." Nikita "chooses life" and is then put through a grueling training process to become a feminine assassin. We have here another '90s post-feminist trope: The "I can have it all, I defy categories, I eat 'choice' for breakfast, lunch, and dinner" anthem of the decade.
Nikita's vices are transmuted into strengths. Her "babe assassin" makeover incorporates both purportedly "male" aggressiveness and "female" seductiveness. Note that the show's opening montage contains one of the most utilized images of the '90s: a woman sets fire to something in the background, usually a car, with a flick of the wrist, and then walks toward the camera with that "I'm going to lose that zero and get myself a hero" pout of defiant insouciance. (Where else have we seen this montage? 1) Claire Danes in The Mod Squad; 2) Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale; 3) an All Saints video whose title escapes me.)
In fact, like the rest of us, Nikita has no choice. As the employee of a ruthless, utterly amoral state anti-terrorist organization with a supposedly underlying "moral" purpose (think Microsoft), Nikita faces the dilemma of all job holders: If she quits, they kill her; if we quit, we find another equally soul-killing job or starve to death.
The '90s job market requires a more-than- full-time devotion to the workplace, unpaid (and often unacknowledged) overtime, and a nearly round-the-clock accessibility by cell phone, email, voice mail, and beeper, for fear of seeming unprofessional to superiors. Just like us, Nikita's a sort of human cell phone, on call 24-7, since she might have to undertake a "mission" at any given moment.
What keeps Nikita in the game? Love, of course. Nikita resists fleeing her job and its noxious moral climate; instead, she nurtures romantic dreams of ending up with Michael, her politically and emotionally ambiguous co-worker love interest. In one early episode of the series, aptly titled "Escape," Nikita is offered the opportunity (granted, by a sceevy co-worker whose job it is to watch her at home via video surveillance) to flee Section. While she mulls over the prospect, Michael decides to get (even more) charming, hinting that he and Nikita should start seeing more of each other "outside Section," and then delivers the knock-out seduction punch by whispering: "We fight all the time just to stay alive. Let's not fight what's between us; let's take what we can get."
The Nikita of the movie escapes, even if it's in the form of oblivion. TV's Nikita chooses to stay right where she is, in a loathsome job landscape where every day may be her last, goaded into immobility by the prospect of love. In this respect, we are all la femme Nikita.
Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for the Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.