The Magazine

Cops at Sea

‘NCIS’ gets no critical respect, but should.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By ELI LEHRER
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NCIS (the title is short for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service”) is almost certainly the most popular television show in the world.

Cops at Sea

It topped the 2010-11 Nielsen ratings for scripted programming and runs today—to universally high viewership—on at least three different networks. On one July Sunday, a Northern Virginia cable television system offered at least 11 hours of the show; a 2010 Harris poll found that it was America’s all-time favorite TV series. Even previously aired regular time (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT) NCIS episodes on home network CBS regularly outperform new episodes of critically praised shows like the Canadian cop drama Rookie Blue, vampire thriller True Blood, and the Steven Spielberg-produced Falling Skies. The show is also a global hit: It regularly ranks among the top dramas in countries ranging from France to Brazil and is translated or subtitled in at least 30 languages in no less than 60 markets.

If you aren’t one of its millions of viewers, however, there’s a decent chance you may not have heard of NCIS, or its almost-as-popular spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles. It received mixed reviews on its debut in 2003, and while a few media outlets have run stories on its commercial success, not a single major television critic for a leading daily or newsmagazine has written about it since at least 2008. Even CBS’s own talk and news shows pay only token attention to its cast and their doings. Not even television people give it much respect: In eight seasons the perennial Top 20 show has gotten only two Emmy nominations (neither one for the show’s leading creative talents or regular cast).

Not since the never-even-nominated-for-an-Emmy, bikini-heavy Baywatch got more than one billion global viewers in the mid-1990s has a show found so much popular success and so little critical acclaim. Unlike Baywatch and some other popular-success/critical-flop shows, however, NCIS is actually decent television that’s successful, in part, because it’s one of the few television shows that demonstrates an essentially conservative worldview.

First, the basics: Despite its military trappings, NCIS is a pretty conventional police procedural with a few medical/forensic elements and a decent dose of sitcom-style comedy. The stories, set in an entity based loosely on the Navy’s real agency of the same name (a civilian body that polices the Navy’s own ranks and does counterintelligence), are usually 45-minute mysteries involving the murders of Navy men and women. In most plots, Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) leads the wisecracking men and women of Major Case Response Team through a search for someone who murdered a member of the Navy.

The show has predictable twists and turns: The first “surely guilty” suspect didn’t commit the murder, the geek/computer whiz Tim McGee (Sean Murray) and goth-girl forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) produce important evidence from thin air, agent Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherley) finds vaguely embarrassing things in his colleagues’ desks, NCIS director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) gets fed up with Gibbs’s antics but ultimately lets him off easy. And so forth. Everyone has stock quirks and foibles (Abby sleeps in a coffin! McGee likes comic books!). In the end, the bad guys almost always get caught.

Nevertheless, NCIS is not lightweight and easily surpasses the narrative sophistication of onetime hits like Magnum P.I. or The Dukes of Hazzard that got stratospheric ratings in the pre-Fox, pre-cable world. Those shows, like nearly all TV dramas before the 1990s, relied on people just to “tune in” to individual episodes and thus avoided sophisticated episode-to-episode storytelling, meaningful character development, and (except sometimes during sweeps weeks) anything that might make one episode different from another.

NCIS is different. Plot threads continue from episode to episode. Main cast members have died at least as much for narrative reasons as for contract disputes. A lot of the wisecracks are funny (if not necessarily laugh-out-loud) and most plots, if predictable, are smartly written. The single-camera setup, and a budget big enough for helicopter and crane shots, gives location shots a cinematic quality. Episode-to-episode continuity is good, and at times, the show can even be pretty frightening. A multi-episode arc about the search for a serial killer that ended the most recent season could have made a good thriller movie.

Above all, NCIS is plain old entertaining. Plots move along at a good clip. Viewers learn enough about the characters to care about them. But the long, politics-ridden, angst-driven episodes that critics lap up in second-rate entertainments like HBO’s Treme are absent. And NCIS, although rarely profound, is also comforting: Good guys win, the United States is supreme. Sure, there are bad apples in the Navy; but it is (to quote its own recruiting slogan) “a Global Force for Good.” Families—which, interestingly, aren’t part of the major characters’ lives—are seen as an ideal, although one that’s not always consistent with a career. (One episode ends with most of the major characters sharing a family-style Thanksgiving dinner.) Everyone works hard. Long-term service members are almost always honorable, selfless, and brave even when they screw up. Uniforms are always shiny and pressed, and even British medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum) is an American patriot. While there’s no great emphasis on divine intervention, religion is clearly part of the characters’ lives: Special agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) is a Jewish former Mossad operative, Abby and Gibbs mention their Roman Catholic faith.

With the exception of a few pro-Israel stories involving Ziva, however, “issue” plots, such as they are, rarely take on truly controversial issues but instead focus on big-picture, commonly held values such as courtesy, charity, courage, obedience to the law, patriotism, and honesty. Of course, hardly anyone openly criticizes these values, but they aren’t the sort of virtues that characters possess in critically acclaimed but decidedly lower-rated shows, like the incredibly funny 30 Rock (characters are smart, accomplished, and funny but decidedly selfish) or dramatic True Blood (major characters are creative and virtuous, by some standards, but continually break the law). Just as important, these are values that everyone can reasonably aspire to. Being super-creative requires special talent and leads to a desire for the spotlight; good character alone can make someone brave and law abiding.

Much of this reflects the thinking of creator Donald Bellisario and his family members (a son, stepson, and daughter all serve as NCIS franchise producers, although Bellisario himself has no day-to-day involvement). Bellisario once described himself as a sort of pro-military libertarian: “liberal socially and conservative fiscally and especially conservative when it comes to the military.” And his previous shows—the military drama JAG (of which NCIS is a spin-off) and Quantum Leap—demonstrated
similar values.

Despite its overall grounding in modern social realities (Gibbs speaks in favor of gay rights), NCIS engages in conservative, even reactionary, wish fulfillment more than occasionally. The show’s pilot episode involved the lead characters foiling a plot to assassinate George W. Bush (portrayed on stage), but Barack Obama has never appeared. A coda to another episode contained a homage to the “richer” lives people led prior to modern electronics. More significant, perhaps, is that just as NBC’s police procedural franchise Law & Order takes place in a left-wing quasi-Marxist fantasy world where business executives murder and rape to boost profits, NCIS’s agents track down community organizers from ACORN-like organizations who murder Marines for kicks and rich liberals in gated communities who form terrorist cells to protest foreign wars. Indeed, nearly anyone on the show who expresses left-wing political views, or has a fancy high-end civilian job, is almost certainly a bad guy, while almost any mechanic or factory worker is a good guy.

Is NCIS great television? No. It’s formulaic, lacks hugely compelling characters, and rarely turns out a memorable line of dialogue. It would have to lay aside the things that make it appealing and popular if it ever went in a direction to make it interesting to New Yorker readers, an Emmy voter’s choice, or a buzzworthy topic on the Georgetown/Upper West Side cocktail party circuit. There’s better stuff on TV for sure. But NCIS is popular, comforting, good entertainment that speaks to a part of America that rightly finds its worldview, even its fantasies, missing from most mainstream television dramas. 

Doesn’t everyone deserve a little wish fulfillment?

Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute. 

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