(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Phil Nugent drops in on NCIS again. In coming weeks, look for articles on Dr. Phil, Judge Judy, Pardon The Interruption, and Criminal Minds.)
Pauline Kael—star, standout supporting player, and author of no fewer than three books released last week (a biography by Brian Kellow, James Wolcott's memoir of New York in the '70s, and a collection inducting her into the Library of America, respectively)—may be best known among readers of conservative blogs for supposedly having once said that she didn't understand how Richard Nixon got elected president, since she didn't know anyone who'd voted for him. Given that you, constant reader, are among that select group of pop culture aesthetes discerning enough to seek out TV coverage articles at this site, chances are that you don't know anybody who watches NCIS, but it's a top-rated show that's currently in its ninth season. The series was launched at a time when CSI was all the rage and sprouting spin-off series all over the CBS lineup like acne. (Originally, the network, fearing that the letters might strike some viewers as confusingly vague, insisted on calling it Navy NCIS. If you spelled out the acronym, this meant that the show's official title for its first year was "Navy Navy Criminal Investigative Service." Manos: The Hands of Fate, tip your hat.)
NCIS is actually a spin-off of JAG, the navy procedural that ran for ten seasons, nine of them on CBS. (Both shows were the creation of the maestro of meh, Donald P. Bellisario, the man who made Tom Selleck what he is today, or at least the man who made Tom Selleck what he was in 1981, which, given the dull but studly actor's limited capacity for creative growth, made where he is today kind of a forgone conclusion.) NCIS currently holds the 8 PM slot on its night, just as JAG always did, and I can think of no better way to sum up the source of both show's appeal than to say that they're what's on the Tiffany network before the oldest member of the household starts getting sleepy. I never made it a point to watch JAG when I was at home, but I used to visit my grandmother for days at a time, and whenever I did, I found that JAG just naturally seemed to go with the wallpaper and the Precious Moments figurines in a way that The Sopranos never did. One of the side effects of visiting my grandmother as often as I did was that I ended up seeing JAG often enough to tell when Catherine Bell's sleepy, heavy-lidded look was meant to express horny irritation and when it was just different enough that it was meant to express worried concern. I'd probably know NCIS a lot better than I do if only my grandmother had lived a little longer.
Mind you, part of the appeal of NCIS has to be that it's not hard to get the lay of the land and keep the characters straight even if you do start to feel half asleep while watching it, which is not an unlikely development. Except for David NcCallum as the chief medical examiner and Joe Spano as the FBI agent Tobias Fornell—two old pros doing their own special variations on weathered eccentricity and impatient crankiness, though seldom for long enough—the cast seldom generates more than a steady, low-frequency hum. As the character who's meant to stand out from the pack a little—Abby, the goth-girl forensics expert—the likable Pauley Perrette has to work extra hard to help the viewer get past the fact that she's made to dress as if she were the screwed-up little sister of the wacky spokeswoman from the Progressive car insurance commercials.
These folks all have the honor of getting to flutter around Mark Harmon, who plays team leader Leroy Gibbs. With eight full seasons under his belt and counting, this role counts as the steadiest work that Harmon has had since the movie career he left St. Elsewhere for crashed and burned on takeoff, though his Trivial Pursuit card should probably still read, "Who got the least out of being named People magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive'?" Harmon doesn't really act that much better than he did during his Flavor of the Month period, but he does his best to suggest that he's stoically holding back deep reserves of pain and regret by always looking pissed off and silently gazing into the middle distance, way past whoever's talking to him. This actually isn't that different than the way he used to "act" when he was hot, but it looks less narcissistic and more world-weary now that he never smiles and has gray hair, which he tends to whenever nobody beats him to the Supercuts coupon in the newspaper left in the break room. (He's currently sporting what looks like a Moe Howard combover with side extensions.) The much-married Leroy is understood to be hurting because the only woman he ever really loved—Shannon, his first wife—was murdered, along with their daughter, by Mexican drug dealers. This has left him an unconsolable, broken man inside, and fuels his desire to bring evil-doers to justice. Presumably, if his wife and child were still alive, he'd co-sponsor any evil-doers who wanted to move into his building.
One of the show's better running gags is that the grumpy zombie Gibbs and the walking death's-head Fornell share an ex-wife, Diane, who Fornell describes as "the spawn of Satan, but also the mother of my child." Like Kramer's buddy Bob Sacamano, Lt. Columbo's wife, and that other Diane, who used to be on the receiving end of Agent Cooper's tape-recorded monologues, Diane seemed destined to remain a character often referred to but never seen. Tonight's very special episode brought in Melinda McGraw (Scott Bakula's actress-turned-schoolteacher girlfriend on Men of a Certain Age and the wife of the abrasive standup comic on Mad Men) as Diane, who did turn out to be one hot number and a scene-stealing piece of work. Diane set her dueling exes the task of finding her current husband, Victor, a "data storage coordinator" who was abducted from a fast-food burger joint's drive-through line. His last contact with Diane was a phone conversation they had just before he disappeared, which means that she knew he was breaking his diet. "I wouldn't go home either," muttered Fornell, "if I was covered in bacon grease and there was a bloodhound waiting."
This was probably the best episode of NCIS I've ever seen, mainly because of McGraw, and because of its highly concentrated dose of Joe Spano, who, dropping zingers and swigging Pepto-Bismal straight from the bottle, did such a terrific job holding up his end of the spiky rapport between his character and Harmon's that you could almost swear, during their scenes together, that there two whole actors up there on the screen. It's just too bad that the writers tried to spread the comedy around so that everybody got a piece of it; it was a sweet idea in theory, but in practice, it meant giving one of the junior studs a fixation on hair loss so that he could natter about balding patterns and the fine heads of hair on any corpse he came across, while Cote de Pablo, she of the bright-eyed stare and the widow's peak, stood around looking amused while waiting for her next opportunity to casually step out from behind a pillar and shoot some extra in the chest from a distance of three inches.
There was also a serious bum moment at the end when Diane visited Gibbs after her husband had been rescued and the bad guys put away and told him that she understands that their marriage was a sham because he was still in love with his dead wife, Shannon, and always will be, and then told him, "You're my Shannon." The worst thing about this was that it undercut one of the funniest moments in the show, when Victor, with Gibbs and Fornell looking on, seemed to demonstrate that he was so perfectly on Diane's wavelength that he knew how to redirect her energy and turn her to much just when she seemed determined to be furious with him. By deciding, in the last few minutes, that Victor could only be chopped liver compared to the memory of Gibbs, the show seemed to be undercutting its best ideas for the sake of the star's ego, but maybe that's what the title "Executive Producer" in the credits buys you.
It might buy more than that. The biggest surprise in the plot was that the villains, who meant to release a killer virus and assassinate off a bunch of high-ranking military officials, turned out to be working on behalf of American security contractors who were trying to prevent a drawdown of U. S. military forces overseas, lest it interfere with their profit margins. "Beware the military-industrial complex," intoned the NCIS Director, looking straight into the camera as he delivered a line that goes pretty far in cutting against the grain of Donald P. Bellisario's universe as we have come to know it. (Though Bellisario's name is still on the show—he has his own "Executive Producer" credit—he was reportedly nudged out of his role as its major day-to-day creative force, at Harmon's urging—four years ago.) This is potentially incendiary stuff, but I kind of doubt that Fox News will be launching any special investigations into NCIS as a source of dangerous anti-American propaganda. On a show like NCIS, the ability to say shocking things is one of the side benefits of ensuring that whatever they say is probably going to come out sounding a little boring.
- The NCIS Director also got to deliver the Tobias Fünke Memorial Award Line of Dialogue of the evening when he complained about the difficult case he'd wound up with on his desk: "You gave me a bone sandwich, Gibbs!"