Quick: How many TV shows can you name that are spin-offs of spin-offs? The classic example of course is Good Times, which came from Maude, which came from All In The Family. And if you count Happy Days as a spin-off of Love: American Style then Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi all qualify as spin-offs of spin-offs. I’m sure there are a few other examples too. And tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time, we initiate another member to the club: NCIS: Los Angeles, the first spin-off of NCIS, which itself spun off from JAG.
I bring this up only because it’s arguably the single most interesting thing about NCIS: Los Angeles, a CBS procedural so formulaic that it should come packaged in a bubbling beaker. Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J play partners in a Special Projects branch of the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service. O’Donnell’s an orphan and a lone wolf by nature, skilled at undercover work and good at noticing the small details that people with normal human relationships might not spot. LL’s a laid-back quipster with a rough-and-tumble past. This dynamic duo was introduced last spring in a two-part episode of NCIS that ended with O’Donnell getting shot in the chest. The first episode of NCIS: Los Angeles begins with O’Donnell returning to work after months of rest and recuperation. He’s skittish—and homeless—but his instincts are as sharp as ever.
The first case he catches involves a kidnapped sailor, who was nabbed by a drug kingpin for reasons related to his family. The plot twists a couple of times along the way, and ends with an old-fashioned punch-out/shoot-out, but mainly “Identity” is intended to introduce O’Donnell as an unusually skilled lump of clay, and to give us a sense of the team of kooky technophiles and ridiculously attractive field agents who’ll be assisting him and LL from week to week. They’re all fairly indistinct, with the exception of the big boss, played by the diminutive Linda Hunt, who gives her character a shot of “dotty old aunt” as she fusses about expense accounts and personal grooming. In one of the episode’s highlights, Hunt lovingly recites the technical specs of O’Donnell’s equipment, and adds an almost musical quality to the word “Bloooo-Tooooth!”
Of course it’s not surprising that one of the best moments in “Identity” involves technology, since this is a show that loves its gadgets. I don’t know what the budget is for the real-world NCIS, but here they have enough money for cutting-edge laptops and hi-def mini-cameras, and a massive, underlit room full of beeping computers and a wall-sized touch-screen display.
In fact, calling NCIS: Los Angeles a “spin-off” is probably too generous, since that implies a traditional TV cycle of introducing characters, building audience affection for those characters, and then asking them to transfer that affection to an entirely new show. NCIS: Los Angeles isn’t really about spending time with old friends. It’s about spending time with new machines—packed with old wiring.
-Early in the episode, LL Cool J asks O’Donnell if he’s sure he’s ready to come back. I would’ve bumped the grade for this episode up a full point if he’d answered, “Don’t call it a comeback…”
-O’Donnell’s character is named “G. Callen,” but he doesn’t know what the “G” stands for. Mystery!
-One exchange did make me chuckle:
O’Donnell: “Who’s that?”
LL: “New guy. Green.”
O’Donnell: “That’s his name?”
-LL Cool J runs like a penguin.