NCIS (the title is short for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service”) is almost certainly the most popular television show in the world.
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.