I should have written about this show before, but was too busy enjoying the awesomeness of it. It's finally back from winter hiatus though, and I want to recommend it for how great it treats its female characters. Some showrunners could learn a lot from it.
I'm talking about the CW show, because I've never seen the previous cable series.
Normally I don't like the action-adventure genre that much, but I'll tolerate it in movies like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films. And though I enjoyed Burn Notice at first, the spy storyline eventually became too convoluted and boring.
But Nikita gets everything just right. She's sexy, smart, and a badass fighter. Yet she's emotionally vulnerable too and flawed, keeping secrets from her close friends and thinking she knows best in every situation. She's not the only female lead, either. Nikita works with Alex, a young girl that she's rescued (in more than one way) and who eventually becomes a strong woman in her own right. Their friendship and near mother/daughter relationship is one of the best things about this show. Whether working together or apart, they are central to making the spy games on this show mean something.
Nikita used to work for Division, a top secret agency that performed assassinations and other bad things for money, but finally she escaped them and went rogue. Even before Division, she was a drug addict on death row for killing a cop. While in Division, she fell in love with her mentor Michael, and after she left, he was supposed to find her and kill her, but he couldn't. The show played with the will they/won't they for a while, but then they got together at the end of season 1. Michael escaped Division too and joined her mission to bring down Division. I found it very refreshing that this show had enough confidence in the rest of the plot that they didn't need to unbelievably sustain an artificial tension from their unresolved romance.
Anyway, about Alex. She is introduced to us as a drug addict and former sex slave, whom Nikita rescued and got clean. But that's not all. Over the episodes, we slowly learn more about Alex's backstory, how her parents were murdered years ago, and how she isn't actually American but Russian. Nikita explains that she's saving Alex out of guilt. Alex's parents were murdered on a Division op, and Nikita is trying to make things right, because she didn't realize that Alex would be sold into sex slavery afterward. After coming to trust Nikita, Alex volunteers to become her ally, getting herself into Division so she can help Nikita undermine the evil organization from the inside. She gets trained to be an assassin too, and has to betray another agent to keep herself safe.
But eventually Alex learns the full truth, that Nikita was the assassin who killed her father, even though she later smuggled young Alexandra out to safety (at least she assumed it was safety). This betrayal leads Alex to confront Nikita and abandon her mission to take down Division. This is key to the show's awesomeness. The show could have had their rift form over other reasons, such as an Alex/Nikita/Michael love triangle, or a fight about Alex wanting to escape Division to have a normal life with her own love interest. Instead the show avoided such cliches and struck at the heart of Alex and Nikita's trust in each other. It makes their bond heartbreaking, and their character arcs are rich in moral greys.
So Alex becomes a woman with her own goals independent of Nikita; she wants revenge for her parents' murder. She wants to claim her birthright in Russia, her father's company Zetrov. She is even brought over to the dark side, when the head of Division is deposed by Amanda, the previous seduction and interrogation expert. Amanda talks Alex into working with Division in order to help her achieve her vengeance on the new head of Zetrov, who had planned and bought the assassination of his predecessor. Amanda swears that Division won't be evil anymore, and that Nikita after all can be wrong about things. But we know better...
I won't reveal too much more about the plot, because that would spoil much of season 2. There are lots more great characters on the show like Percy, Roan, Birkhoff, Owen, and the aforementioned Amanda, but it would take too long to describe who they are. I just want to praise how this show avoids all the stale cliches of lesser shows and gives us awesome, well-rounded women characters. The fact that the season 1 cliffhanger depended on Nikita and Alex's relationship, and not on love triangles or the like, shows that they are faithful to the core of their premise, a great friendship and partnership between two women.
I kinda wish (if they weren't going to make her a singer) that BBC Sherlock would have made Irene Adler like Nikita. Irene is best when we see her as a wronged woman seeking protection and vengeance against a powerful foe. When she's grey, not an evil criminal manipulating people for selfish ends, or being manipulated by Moriarty in villainous schemes, then she's most interesting and most real. Then she's not a mere femme fatale trope, a sexist fantasy to titillate and shock viewers.