“It’s a big choice here, Brody—where you live says everything,” NCIS Special Agent Dwayne Pride (Scott Bakula) tells his colleague Meredith Brody (Zoe McLellan) halfway through the opening episode of NCIS: New Orleans, which features a subplot about Brody settling in New Orleans. She eventually decides on a guest house on a Mardi Gras parade route, signaling a transition: From staffer with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Great Lakes office to official Big Easy resident.
NCIS’ choice to set up shop in New Orleans marks the second spin-off for television’s most popular drama series, though it’s the third attempted: Last year, NCIS: Red was piloted but rejected by CBS. That series was to follow a mobile NCIS unit traveling the country, so NCIS: New Orleans represents a complete 180. Taking full advantage of Louisiana’s generous filming incentives, the series very consciously reminds the viewer that this is a television program set in New Orleans. It also reveals, over the course of its first episode, that it remains a television format transplanted there, such that hometown pride is all the series has to express.
NCIS: New Orleans has no new stories to tell, as far as a military crime procedural is concerned. Bakula’s Pride is a middle-aged man with a messy marriage and a grown-up daughter who he struggles to connect with, and he leads a team that fits comfortably into the roles we’ve come to expect from a show like this. (A Southern accent is the only thing distinguishing Lucas Black’s rugged and moral Christopher LaSalle from other similar procedural protagonists.) They solve the same type of Navy and Navy-adjacent crimes that are solved in Washington, D.C., but they make more references to beignets and crawfish. Although there are a number of such details in the first case—which follows the murder of a petty officer with potential gang connections whose leg ends up mixed in with the catch of the day—it is ultimately the same type of case seen on the original NCIS, and follows almost identical rhythms.
That was clearly part of the plan. Whereas NCIS: Los Angeles adjusted the formula to move away from murders toward long-term undercover investigations, NCIS: New Orleans is hewing close to the existing formula. Bakula and Mark Harmon are cut from the same cloth; Black and McLellan’s characters banter in ways that echo the light-hearted comedy elements of the original series; and C.C.H. Pounder’s Dr. Loretta Wade functions similarly to NCIS medical examiner “Ducky” Mallard (who, conveniently, makes a cameo appearance in the premiere). It’s the same type of cases run by the same type of people, an obvious ploy to keep NCIS’ substantial audience tuned to CBS for a second hour on Tuesday nights.
However, the new show fails the test of embracing the cultural specificity of New Orleans on anything but a surface level. The characters talk about being in New Orleans, and the spaces the show occupies—like the jazz club featured in the premiere—have been adjusted to reflect the local culture. But the choice to feature an almost entirely white cast—Aaron Moten appeared in the backdoor pilot as a lab technician, but he’s replaced here by Rob Kerkovich—means the show’s characters offer only a narrow view of the city’s culture. Representation of New Orleans’ black majority rests with Pounder’s medical examiner (the most marginal of the main roles in a series like this one) and any case-of-the-week characters who pop in and out of the story. The season premiere features a young black male who Pride mentored as he transitioned from gang life into the Navy, which addresses issues of race and class in the city but places the show and its characters above those issues.
The deck is admittedly stacked against NCIS: New Orleans: Not only has the original series taken on a reputation as the definitive “rote procedural that lots of people watch for some reason,” but New Orleans was also recently given the serialized TV treatment in the gritty, realistic, and complex Treme. But a procedural isn’t necessarily a more limited frame through which to understand a city like New Orleans: 2007’s K-Ville used post-Katrina New Orleans as the backdrop for its episodic storytelling, engaging with the racial and cultural tensions of the city rather than the cheerier version existing in the popular imagination. K-Ville embraced the Crescent City’s diversity and eccentricities while still adhering to the case-of-the-week structure that makes the NCIS format so successfully domestically and globally.
However, that would be a risk for a CBS procedural. Treme’s audience was roughly 5 percent the size of NCIS’ weekly viewership, and K-Ville was canceled after a single season. People don’t want a show set in the real New Orleans; they want a show set in a romanticized corner of the city, where the serialized threat isn’t systemic, bureaucratic failure but rather a single corrupt politician (Steven Weber), whom Pride vows to bring down. They want a show that uses New Orleans as attractive window dressing, a set of cultural codes that make a show with so little to add look new and exciting. They want a show that expands the franchise, a priority that vetoes any of the choices that would have made NCIS: New Orleans remotely interesting.
Bakula is a strong anchor for a series like this one, and the supporting cast is likable and engaged. There are worse shows on television, and other procedurals that offer worse foundations for storytelling. However, based on the framework laid out by producers, NCIS: New Orleans is primarily concerned with continuing the franchise, at the expense of telling stories of the lived realities of its primary setting.