Security guard: NCIS. Is that anything like CSI?
Tony DiNozzo: Only if you’re dyslexic.
Originally a spin-off from JAG (about Naval lawyers; I don’t think it ever really took hold in the UK), NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) is more veteran than anything still-running we’ve reviewed thus far, going into its tenth season in September, and highly likely to be picked up for an eleventh next year.
Generally, if you’ve seen one cop/murder mystery show, you’ve seen them all, with the obvious change of era, technology and location.
Certainly my mother watches Murder She Wrote so often that I’ve learnt their specific formula off by heart.
And, generally, NCIS delivers – murder takes place, body is discovered, team steps in, bad guy gets caught and everybody’s happy – aside from the murderer and the victim, of course. Throw in a few forensic details, shake well, and serve chilled.
The thing that sets NCIS apart is that it’s fun. It’s light-hearted. And these moments aren’t just few and far between – sarcastic barbs thrown in to lighten a particularly gruesome episode.
In fact, it could almost – almost – be called a comedy, but it is played so well, that they’re not doing it for laughs; they’re doing it because these people are just … being themselves.
The team is led by Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon. He runs his team based on 50 ‘rules’ that aren’t written down, and run from “Never trust a lawyer” and “Never let suspects stay together” to “Hide the women and children first”. An ex-marine and blatant chauvinist, his ‘gut’ is usually what puts the team on the path of the real culprit, regardless of any evidence they may have. He works like the Wild West, completely disregarding any rules, much to the frustration of his bosses and other agencies.
If Gibbs is the sheriff, Special Agent Anthony “Tony” DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly, is the deputy. Selfish, sexist, and serial womaniser, Tony, should be a thoroughly unlovable character – I say ‘should be’, because I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t love him completely, and that includes his partner, former Mossad officer Ziva David (Cote de Pablo).
I’ll let viewers decide whether the popular fan ship of ‘Tiva’ does or should exist, but their witty banter often earns Tony, at least a smack on the head, at least every episode.
The last member of the team, Tim McGee (Sean Murray), is … well, one of us. He moonlights as an author, cosplays on his days off, and gets thoroughly overexcited at new technology or at vintage comic books (“It was the first appearance of Sabertooth”). In fact, in many ways, he shouldn’t fit in with the other three, led by evidence rather than gut, like Gibbs and Tony, and more likely to call a negotiator than reach for his gun, like Ziva. But long-term fans of the show have watched him grow up into the investigator we all knew he could be.
Pride of place in this cast has to be forensic scientist, Abby Scuito. The forensics part of crime shows tends to be dry, or brushed over. It only really works in shows like CSI because it’s the premise for the whole thing, but in shows like NCIS, where the dialogue is fresh and upbeat, to then cut to a forensics lab and have someone explain the evidence with long words that none of us understand, and chemistry that we didn’t even touch upon at school …
Well, it hardly helps the viewers stay involved.
So what did NCIS do to combat this potential pitfall?
They created Abby – “the happiest Goth you’ll ever meet”. Covered in tattoos, and fully ready to believe in UFOs, horoscopes, and everything under the sun, Abby (Pauley Perrette) brings a breath of fresh air to a part of the show that could otherwise have been labelled as repetitive.
When you add ME Ducky (David McCallum) and his never-ending stories, ME assistant Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) and his endearing nervousness, and a handful of FBI agents and NCIS officials, you have an eclectic cast of characters who make you cry as often as they make you laugh.
NCIS is about the people, not the crime, which is what helps set it apart from every other crime show shown on TV. Episodes stand alone, which makes it easy for a casual viewer to pick up mid-season and enjoy an episode, but seasons are often drawn together with an overbearing arc that often affects the team more than it does the cases.
I’d give this show four out of five – there was a little blip in quality in Season 8 that shook the whole fandom.
Roxanne Williams (Off to get a tan)
UK readers: NCIS is shown on Channel 5 and returns with Season 9 on Wednesday nights next January (for some annoying reason, we’re a season behind).
US readers: NCIS is shown on CBS and returns with Season 10 on the 25th of September.