The femme can't help it

The week on television

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In the course of a normal TV week you don't have to put in too many couch-hours to witness a couple of dozen deaths. For one week only, however, broadcasters were unwilling to up-end a packet of salt into the suppurating wounds of an already grief-stricken populace. Hence the bizarre situation in which one real-life death postponed all fictional reminders of mortality. My favourite concession to public hyper-sensitivity involves NBC Europe, who apparently pulled a National Geographic natural history film about monkeys in which a mother dies leaving her young offspring behind to fend for itself.

Somehow Vets in Practice (BBC1, Tues and Fri), in which the nation's livestock is given a twice-weekly prescription of daisy root to chew on, slipped through the net. It was joined this week by Noah's Ark (ITV, Mon), which ought to be called Vets in Theory, the theory being that veterinary surgeons on television equals bums on seats. So much for theory. It already feels so dated it would have been fairer to farm it straight out to UK Gold.

La Femme Nikita (C5, Fri) was initially scheduled to begin its run the night before The Funeral. It's about a beautiful blonde woman whose death is faked by a clandestine government agency which reinvents her as a lean, mean fighting force for good. You can see the problem. The conspiracy theorists who think Diana has done an Elvis would have loved this scenario (even if, strictly speaking, Elvis didn't actually do an Elvis himself). But the rest of us would have had to spend all last Saturday composing bilious letters of rebuke to Channel 5 rather than concentrate on sobbing our sockets out to the sound of Elton John.

So, La Femme Nikita began last night. Except "began" needs qualifying. La Femme Nikita is a television spin-off of the Hollywood movie The Assassin which is itself a remake of the French movie Nikita. The aforementioned conspiracy theorists will further note that Elton John once had a hit with a song called "Nikita". As intellectual property, the trade name is thus in the possession of its fourth or fifth owners. The word "shop- soiled" springs unbidden to mind.

It's difficult to know what to make of the Francophone flavourings in the title. Perhaps the American audience it was made for is meant to feel flattered that it can handle the implied existence of other, alien cultures. In a more interesting spin, it could be that appending "La Femme" to the title is a niche-marketing device calculated to lure the square-eyed lesbians who have already iconised Channel 5's Xena: Warrior Princess. At this early stage in the series, Nikita does seem to be eyebrow-raisingly boyfriendless. The single woman who lives across the landing suddenly tantalises with plot possibilities. Then again, don't rule out the sexual charisma of Nikita's recruitment operative. His chin's so big he could dig his own grave with it. (Oops, sorry.) If his libido is even half the size, he'll be truffling into Nikita's underwear by next week. He delivers his dialogue in a post-coital school-of-Clint whisper, as if he's already had sex with the rest of the cast. Any minute now, you think, he's going to nod off.

On the same night, ITV introduced its own American import. The Practice (ITV, Fri) falls off the conveyor belt that brought you LA Law and Chicago Hope. They could have called it Boston Plea Bargain and you'd have got the general picture. Lots of defence lawyers all talking at once, only stopping to listen to each other when you're meant to too. This being American television as opposed to American reality, the lawyers are wholly admirable rather than wholly detestable. When we first come across one young attorney, she is distraught that she has just successfully defended her 11th drug dealer in a row, and you can practically see her heart bleeding right there on the sleeve.

Occasionally, the constrictions of the genre are confronted, even undermined. When the shoot-from-the-hip juvenile-lead lawyer takes on the near-impossible defence of a woman wrongly accused of drug-pushing, we see him begin his summing up with that tired old speech entitled "Beyond all reasonable doubt". You're sitting there thinking "this is so ... so ... generic", and then the camera pulls away to reveal that he is addressing his empty office. In this pilot episode's comedy plotline, a serial flasher comes before the judge and offers his usual defence. "You exposed your penis by accident?" The other joke was the wig worn by Linda Hunt's circuit judge. Last seen, I kid you not, on Elton John's head in Westminster Abbey.

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