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The evolution of "NCIS"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 19, 2014

When  you think about the cultural divide in the television industry, you cannot find a much better example than "NCIS." It is immensely popular, and its fans howl on a yearly basis when it is overlooked by the Emmys.* More respect is deserved, and every now and then a critic realizes that. Or the intensity of its fan base is made evident when there's a big change at the show, such as the departure of Cote de Pablo after a long run.

But "NCIS' quietly goes about its business week to week, blending humor with drama and sometimes serialized stories; it is enough of a brand name to have a spin-off, "NCIS: LA," with a second one, "NCIS: New Orleans" due in the fall.

Only  "NCIS: LA,' even as it replicates elements of the original series, is not as good as just plain "NCIS." Nor did the pilot for "New Orleans" show much promise, even with the affable Scott Bakula in the lead. And this goes to a point I want to make about "NCIS": It is not an easy show to do.

For starters, it is never simple  to craft a hit, let alone one that has been on the air for more than 10 years and has done work that is both popular and credible.

Moreover, besides the casting changes (Sasha Alexander and de Pablo leaving, for example) and some off-camera adjustments (series creator Donald Bellisario was ousted in 2007, reportedly because of clashes with star Mark Harmon),** the show itself has undergone some significant fine-tuning, as was clear recently when I was rewatching some first-season episodes.***

Early "NCIS" was a different creature from what you see now. Tony, Michael Weatherly's character, was a lot less slick, for one thing -- he indeed resembled the Tony we saw later in a flashback to his joining the team. As I said at the time the series premiered,**** it had more than a little "CSI" in it, which has been less crucial over the years, although it still blends science and electronics with its shoe-leather work. But the biggest changes have been in two areas: the world "NCIS" inhabits and the nature of Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

"NCIS" is a dark show. The investigators have more than once had to deal with ineptness and self-interest in the U.S. government, as well as national and international agendas that get in the way of crime-solving -- or lead to still more crimes. When you get outside the show's core characters, it is nearly impossible to trust anyone, or to believe that the victims are what they seem. ("Bones," another underrated show, traffics similiarly in broad suspicion and near-paranoia.) Audiences have seen more than one sympathetic character die, including Alexander's and the NCIS director played by Lauren Holly. If this was an FX show, say, the main characters would be bitter and cynical; as it is, they have all added emotional armor.

The other revelation evident in those early shows is the way Harmon has trimmed Gibbs down to an essence. In the early going, he was a charmer, more outgoing and -- perhaps most astonishing in retrospect -- something of a talker. I heard Gibbs say more in a single early episode than he might utter in three or four now. I've long believed Harmon would go through "NCIS" scripts and cut his own lines, making Gibbs a man of as few words as possible -- and looking at those early episodes I believe it even more.

Gibbs, after all, is the center of the show. Yes, Tony has his following, as does Ducky, as does Abby; need I bring up the Ziva uproar yet again to note the supporting players' fan base? (The Ziva departure, after all, was not only about her, but about what would happen with her and Tony.) But Gibbs is to this show what Don Draper is to "Mad Men" or Hawkeye was to "MASH." There is no show without him*****. He is the moral core, the final determiner of what is right and wrong, the one who has the final say on where an investigation will go, and the one most fearless in the face of higher-ups. (And, as I have said before, Harmon acts the crap out of all of this; those who fault his performances as too stoic are not looking at what he does with his eyes.)

As he has evolved -- becoming more stoic, warier, and ever more the protector of his people -- the show has, too. It is, as I sadi, darker than it is given credit for, and less willing to settle everything with an action sequence.

To be sure, some viewers have come and gone along the way, and competing networks have tried to shrink its ratings. The Emmys are never going to look past the latest boutique shows to praise "NCIS," and that's understandable considering how great some of those shows are. But "NCIS" still manages to be very, very good -- and has maintained quality not through formula and repetition but by adjjustments and improvements along the way.
 

Footnotes are below. I know, some long ones. But I keep wanting to digress or elaborate, and the notes help with both.

*Here is a question and answer on that issue from my mailbag a year ago:

Q: "NCIS" is continuously slighted by all award shows. While I understand it is hard to nominate one member of a huge team, a nomination for the No. 1 series, if nothing else, makes sense to me. What do you think?
A: I think, first of all, that the CBS drama is a well-made program. Mark Harmon is one of the subtlest actors in TV. The show had more than 21 million weekly viewers, which by many measures made it the most-watched series in prime time for the 2012-13 season. (NBC has made an argument for its Sunday night football telecasts ranking higher, but the networks used different measuring criteria.) Still, it has largely been overlooked by the biggest TV awards, the Emmys, for reasons that have nothing to do with its popularity,
NCIS is not a flashy show. It does not proclaim its innovation, or suggest that it is changing the way television is made. It is not held up as a demonstration of the magic television can make. It is, simply, a good series that aims to entertain its viewers every week with a blend of drama, action and humor. Then consider this: The makers of Home Improvement used to bitterly joke that all they got from the Emmys were awards for lighting; it won that prize often, but none as best comedy. Angela Lansbury has yet to win an Emmy. Andy Griffith never won. Both recall Harmon, who has a comparable making-it-look-easy approach to acting.
Prime-time Emmy voters want to show off; they say their awards "celebrate excellence," not ratings. They want shows that make their industry as a whole look good by demonstrating art and innovation, but from a process that also differs from how most people watch TV. For instance, if you do steady, good work over the course of a 22-episode season, you could easily lose to a show that has been more uneven, because the series Emmys are chosen based on six episodes from a season, letting a producer display six great episodes and shove aside another 16 bad ones.
And the process does not depend on how many people have watched a show. Emmy darlings like Mad Men or recent winner Homeland receive a fraction of the audience of the most popular broadcast-network shows. Even then, with a limited number of nominating slots and dozens of shows competing for them, some critical favorites get overlooked; although actors from The Shield and Friday Night Lights won Emmys, the shows as a whole never did. The Shield was not even nominated for best drama - but won an even more prestigious Peabody Award.
Of course, we may disagree on what's great and what is not. And sometimes popularity and Emmy wins do go together. But the Emmy awarders as a whole are not very different from the people who pick some other awards, the Oscars, for example, go for art over box-office; the most recent best-picture winner, Argo, made far, far less than Marvel's The Avengers, which was not even nominated for best picture.

**There was also the name thing. In its first season, when the show was largely being sold as a spin-off of "JAG," it was called "Navy NCIS,' a redundancy since the "N" in NCIS is for Naval, making this show "Navy Naval Criiminal Investigation Service."

***This is the kind of thing I do when recovering from a summer cold.

****Here's my original column about the show, from 2003:

"NCIS anything like CSI?" a security guard asks early in the premiere of Navy NCIS.
"Only if you're dyslexic," another character replies.
Please. CBS would delight if Navy NCIS became remotely like CSI in the size of its audience -- although it is starting the show with somewhat lower expectations.
The drama, which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS, starts with the goal of maintaining JAG's hold on the audience in that time period, while CBS has moved the older drama to Friday nights.
To that end, the new show comes from Donald Bellisario, also the driving production force behind JAG. And the main Navy NCIS characters were tried out on the JAG audience last season.
Beyond that, though, Navy NCIS looks to have a shot at a somewhat younger audience than JAG. And in its tryout last season -- as well as in Tuesday's premiere -- it was a very different beast from JAG, odder, more humorous and more than slightly CSI-ish.
So Bellisario has taken pains to declare that Navy NCIS "is not a spin-off of JAG" and to make clear that involves something other than the military culture that permeates JAG.
NCIS -- which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service -- "is basically civilians," Bellisario said at a press conference for the show in Hollywood last summer. "Mostly former cops, some FBI agents. ... They don't answer to any (military) chain of command. ... They're independent of the Navy. ... They can go in and investigate, and they don't have to deal with command pressure."
But right now, you're probably thinking, isn't the show's title Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service?
And you're right. "CBS thought -- and I think it's a legitimate concern -- that they want to get JAG viewers to try it out, and to see what it is, because most people don't know what NCIS is," said Bellisario.
But the show tries to explain that in the first episode and Bellisario said that he figured the cumbersome title will be gone "in a very short period of time."
After all, people don't usually refer to CSI by its full title, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Whatever you may call the new series, it's not bad. I liked the in-JAG episodes considerably better than I do JAG. Tuesday's premiere ends weakly but has both drama and fun on the way. Involving a death on Air Force One (no, not the president), it delves into the bureaucratic nightmare that could result from such an event. But it also has fun, with top NCIS agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) delighting in drawing parallels between this "real" Air Force One and the version in the Harrison Ford movie.
Harmon is an additional asset. He's not been a high-profile actor but he has long been a good one; his credits, after all, include St. Elsewhere, The West Wing and Chicago Hope. Via Bellisario's script, he is finding a lot of different tones for Gibbs without ever overdoing it.
The cast also includes Dark Angel's Michael Weatherly as another agent, Anthony Dinozzo; Sasha Alexander as Katie Todd, a Secret Service agent in Tuesday's episode who ends up joining NCIS; and Pauley Perrette as Abby Sciuto, a forensics expert, and David McCallum as medical examiner Donald Mallard.
Yes, old TV fans, that David McCallum. Ilya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Sure, he's gotten older (and the youth appeal on this show likely comes from Perrette and Weatherly). But hey, so have we.
The show really rests on Harmon's shoulders, and at first he was in no hurry to say yes.
"You read scripts, and the scripts either move you and you get through them, or you stop at page 20 and say 'No thanks,' " he said. "And the truth is, when this script came about for me, I didn't want to like it as much as I liked it."
Calling it "a real page turner," he said, "I was excited about closing the last page. ... That's something Karl Malden taught me a long time ago -- your reaction when you close the last page on the script is probably the truest reaction you have on anything. And after that, everything gets messed up. You have all kinds of reasons to do things, or not do things. Some of them aren't even real."
But he knew when he finished that Navy NCIS script that "I liked it a lot. I liked the character."
Of course, like a lot of people, Harmon said, "I didn't have any idea what NCIS was."
Bellisario, of course, had an explanation. And from that has come up with a pretty good show.

 

*****Sometimes even shows that look as if they have a single center do not really. One of the intriguing things about "24: LIve Another Day" was the way it built a second Jack Bauer in Kate Morgan, Yvonne Strahovski's character. She was bad-ass, and she was tormented, and I was fully prepared for "LAD" to kill of Bauer and reboot the franchise around Kate. In fact, that would have been preferable to the actual ending, which was very been-there-done-that.

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