Sticking: NCIS

Posted on October 12, 2011

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NCIS is a spin-off of JAG, which I never watched. It might have been a good show, I don’t know. I’d seen Mark Harmon in Summer School and The Presidio. I’d watched Michael Weatherly in Dark Angel. I’d seen Pauly Perrette in Special Unit 2. I’m not old enough to have watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in its original run, but as a spy fiction geek, I was aware of the show and David McCallum’s role in it.

When a friend recommended that I check out NCIS, I did.

I Watched It

“NCIS” stands for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service.” That’s a real-life US law-enforcement agency that investigates crimes in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. While I did serve my country, it was in the Army, where we had the USACIDC, or United States Army Criminal Investigation Command, commonly abbreviated CID. I spoke with some CID people once, briefly, but that’s the extent of my experience with them. NCIS was a whole new animal for me, and I had no preconceived notions.

Other than the usual ones that the Army has about the Navy.

Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) runs an NCIS team based in Washington, DC. When the show began, he had one agent – Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), a forensic pathologist – Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) – and an evidence tech – Abby Sciuto (Pauly Perrette). In the first episode, back in 2003, he added agent Caitlin “Kate” Todd (Sasha Alexander) after she left the Secret Service. Since then, they’ve added Special Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) and ex-Mossad agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo).

Series creators Donald P. Bellasario and Don McGill did an excellent job of giving each character specific quirks at the very beginning. DiNozzo cracked wise and quoted movies all the time. Ducky was brilliant but tended to wander off on tangents, telling stories from his many years of adventure and experience. Abby was a Goth who loved Gibbs as a father and drank way too many “Caff-pows.” Gibbs was an ascerbic, no-nonsense, former Marine gunnery sergeant who worked by his own rules – and had an unswerving devotion to the service, his team, and justice.

Every week, the team investigates a new crime at least loosely related to the US Navy or the Marine Corps. The cast and creators freely admit that, over the years, the show has wandered pretty far afield from what NCIS does in reality, and I appreciate that they don’t try covering for that.

Sticking

In many ways, Kate was our POV character. We saw the team’s eccentricities through her eyes as she tried to cope with her new workplace. Over the years, that role has passed to Tim McGee, and then to Ziva David.

NCIS focuses on characters. If you’re looking for intricate plotting or a dense thriller, NCIS isn’t for you. What makes the show work for us is its dedication to its characters. There have been at least three heads of NCIS during the eight seasons (Rocky Carroll’s director Leon Vance is my favorite, so far, and I miss him), and Kate is gone now, but otherwise the core team remained the same. Their relationships are often crucial components of plotting and motivation. The writers and actors do a very good job of making those relationships real, and that’s why we’re sticking.

WTF?

NCIS also allows the characters to grow and change. Gibbs has gotten a little softer, and a little more communicative – or at least, they’re showing us more of his quiet, side conversations with team members. Tony has gotten more responsible, and taken on more leadership roles. He’s had his heart-broken, and gotten more focused and more serious. Tim has grown up considerably, becoming more assertive, decisive, and accomplished. Abby has had to come to grips with what her devotion to the team means for her personal life, and with the risks the field agents face every day. Ducky lost his mother, gained a forensic psychology specialty, and is renewing his romantic life. Ziva has wrestled with issues of divided loyalty between her team and her family. Her father and Gibbs have a lot in common, and I think her feelings confused her for awhile.

In most shows, that kind of character change would be the kiss of death. In fact, most shows would become formulaic, vaguely waving their hands at some minimal plot while spending all their time on character dialogue and meaningful glances.

I won’t mislead you: Many NCIS episodes are formulaic. That said, they do a very good job of balancing formula episodes with exceptions, single episode stories with longer arcs, and plot with character.

I believe that NCIS gets away with character change because they are in it for the long haul. Because characters change, there is no bad time to start watching the show. You’re not walking into the middle of anything any less than long-time viewers are. Because there is always someone who is new to the team, there is always a POV character asking the kinds of questions that new viewers ask.

It’s not a perfect show, but we’ve come to love the cast, and we’ll keep watching.

Thoughts

Did you watch JAG? How much has Gibbs changed, from one show to the other? Got a strong feeling about NCIS? Tell us in the comments. If you’d like to contribute a column, please let me know.

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Posted in: Army, television