My wife enjoys both flavors of NCIS on CBS, and I find the original one pretty solid for a network TV program, so I watch along with her; if she wasn’t a fan, I doubt I’d give either a second thought. We’ve been watching NCIS: LA this season, and “watchable” is about its ceiling right now – but I think that, if the writers have any stones, they have an opportunity to turn it into something much better.
If you’ve seen the original NCIS, you know the formula: well-developed characters, lots of witty banter, incredibly simple plots where the perpetrator is always one of the first three non-regular characters you meet, and some serious fast/loose play with technology. If you’re looking for riveting stories, this isn’t it. It’s entertaining, and the writers have done a good job with the characters, but if they get CBS in the afterlife Agatha Christie scoffs for an hour every Tuesday night.
NCIS: LA follows the pattern of the clones in the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity – it’s a copy, but the quality is below that of the original. The plots are even sillier, with higher stakes and more ridiculous resolutions, and even the show’s very premise – a secret NCIS unit in Los Angeles that, if you’re a stickler for things like accuracy, is WAY out of its jurisdiction in almost every episode – is absurd. The writers are pushing hard to flesh out the various characters, but only one (G. Callen, played by Chris O’Donnell) is at all compelling, and, amazingly enough, LL Cool J carries most of the episodes. He’s the best actor on the show after Oscar winner Linda Hunt, who is outstanding as the eccentric unit manager in a fundamentally supporting role, and the writers have wisely put his Sam with G. Callen in a “bromance” at the center of the show. The rest of the cast is bloated even after the recent elimination of Dominic, the biggest cipher. Kensey, played by Brazilian actress Daniela Ruah, serves primarily as a pair of legs and as the token female agent, while Eric, the techie, has the same cliched TV-geek’s inability to stop himself from going into excessive detail on technical subjects, something that was already hackneyed when NCIS started using it for McGee.
Despite its many flaws, NCIS: LA is the highest-rated new show of the 2009-10 season and one of the top-rated shows on network television because it has an incredible lead-in audience from NCIS and serves as an extension of the prior show. The writers and producers could, of course, rest on those laurels, let the money roll in for a few years until either it or the original NCIS runs out of gas, and move on to something else, older and perhaps a bit wealthier. But I see this as opportunity: If audiences will tune in by the millions to watch a mediocre show, why not experiment with something edgier that might not have found the same audience if it hadn’t been handed enormous ratings from the start?
The episode where Dominic was removed from the cast of characters reminded me of one of my favorite British shows, MI-5 (known as Spooks in the UK), which easily beats any network crime drama I’ve ever seen in the U.S*. MI-5 is the British equivalent of the CIA on matters of “internal” security (meaning on British soil), and the show puts the agency and its operations at the heart of the series, rather than the characters. That focus and the serious subject matter give the writers substantial latitude to break with the audience’s normal expectations for a crime drama, where main characters may be killed or otherwise eliminated with little or no notice. Even though things do usually work out in the end, they don’t always work out, and successful operations on MI-5 often come with sacrifices, costs, or casualties. As a result, the show brings a tension unlike any I’ve seen on network TV here.
*I’ve never watched Fox’s 24, because I have little or no interest in a show with a storyline that demands that I watch every week, given my travel schedule and irregular work hours, but I get the sense that that’s one show that matches MI-5 for anything-goes tension. I’m open to other suggestions, as always.
NCIS:LA almost nodded to MI-5 in the episode where Dominic departs the show, but it proved an outlier with the following episode, which brought the series to new depths of ridiculousness when Callen saves an entire mall from botulinum toxin exposure by diving to catch a bottle of the bad stuff that was thrown from two levels up … right near where he happened to be standing. And he made a shoestring catch, of course. That’s fake tension – there was no way in hell CBS was showing a mall full of people dying from botulinum toxin poisoning – whereas MI-5‘s history of less-than-happy endings provides real tension, not to mention twice the freedom for the writers to craft compelling and at least moderately realistic stories, where characters burn out, quit, get hurt, and die, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. If NCIS: LA took that risk, which would be reasonable given the subject matter of the show, not only would it help them turn over a fringy cast of characters beyond Sam, Callen, and Linda Hunt’s Hetty, it could turn a merely watchable program into a can’t-miss one.