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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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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