NCIS: How to Destroy a Successful Television Series

 

Jeffrey Donovan, Burn Notice, once did an impromptu impression of Law and Order, hitting all of the procedurals’ formulaic beats, including the now ubiquitous theme song with the famous clang tone used to transition among scenes. He succinctly illustrated the pitfalls of procedurals. Their plug and play approach, though not always pedestrian, is meant to hit the subconscious like a hypnotic bell programming viewers for enough years to hit syndication and revenue gold. This approach severely crowds the creative space. Art, and television is or can be art, needs room to breath without this type of boundary; there is a difference between structure and formula. The most engaging shows, the ones that move us to tears, laughter or anger avoid strict boundaries.

There is space for the procedural, but it is not a space that I tend to enjoy very often. Homicide: Life on the Streets, Shield and Southland elevated the American crime procedural with their authenticity.  As a CBS show NCIS’ approach is far less dark and lacks diversity, but it too has brought a unique and enjoyable show to the genre. Its unique characters realized by dynamic actors, interesting story arcs and culturally relevant themes put it in a different league than shows like Rookie Blue, the CSI franchise, Hawaii Five-O, Major Crimes and Bones. However, I always wondered if the unique characters are to be attributed to the writers or a simple sketch of the actors’ personas. Watching the actors in interviews, it is difficult to distinguish the actors’ quirks and personality from the characters, especially Michael Weatherly and Pauley Perrette.

Initially called Navy NCIS, it spun-off from Jag in 2003.  Special Agent Leroy Gibbs leads a Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)  team in solving Navy and Marine Corps crimes. As CBS’ number one scripted show, it is a ratings juggernaut. In its twelfth season NCIS was the third ranked show with over 18.25 million viewers. Three episodes into season thirteen the ratings are declining, it remains the most-watched TV show with 16.865 million views on October 6, 2015. The franchise has two spin-offs, NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. Though the NCIS ratings remain strong,  the show’s DNA has changed significantly over the last two years and it has become more like its competitors, just another bland plug and play exercise resulting in nothing of value.

ncis ratings2
Wikipedia

For much of its run, NCIS has had a problematic relationship with its female and POC audience. Time and again the show has used its female characters for ratings to the point of exploitation. Four major female characters have been killed on the show (Caitlin Todd, NCIS Director Jenny Shepard, Ziva David and Diane Sterling) and presumably the actors (Sasha Alexander, Lauren Holly, Cote de Pablo and Melinda McGraw) chose to leave the show. Any Human Resources department would have to investigate this high rate of turnover for women on one team. If Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) suffers a similar fate, the show may land on feminist hit lists!

dead women of ncis

There was also Gerald Jackson (Pancho Demmings), the only team member of color before Director Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll) joined in 2008. Jackson was shot and later kidnapped by Ari. Presumably he left NCIS as he is not seen again and was replaced by Jimmy Palmer. The character seemed to be developed for just this purpose as he was rarely seen and little was known of him.

The show’s DNA, its uniqueness, has been altered to a point that is nearly unrecognizable. Many will point to the departure of fan favorite,  Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) as the show’s time of death at least in regards to quality. De Pablo was dynamic on the show. Her performance was layered and she brought depth to the character. In many ways she was the show’s lynchpin, as she had the most unique relationships with the team: Gibbs (father/mentor-daughter), Dinozzo (colleague-friend-lover), McGhee (confidant), Shuito ( friend-protector), Mallard (touchstone). Replacing de Pablo with  Emily Wickersham as Eleanor Bishop was a colossal casting error.  Wickersham’s performance  is flat. Couple this with the fact that she is the third attempt at creating  a stable team and it is no surprise the fans have not warmed to her. However, neither de Pablo’s departure, Wickersham’s performance or the rehashed story-lines are to blame for this show’s demise.

This show’s destruction was caused by the network’s greed and disregard for its viewers. After show runner changes  and the departure of fan favorites who were central to creating the show’s chemistry, the show had a responsibility to re-energize its casting and writing staff. Bones, in its eleventh season, has managed to keep its stories fresh, though it has lost fan favorite characters like Dr. Lance Sweets and Zach Addy as well as the show runner since day one, Stephen Nathan. Of course, those loses are not as significant as those NCIS has suffered. Without Gibbs’ longtime mentor–Mike Franks (Muse Watson), his FBI counterpart and friend–Tobia Fornell (Joe Spano), his one-time partner turned director– Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly), his protegé and substitute daughter –Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) and with no love interest, you have a protagonist left in a pretty empty sandbox. It is no wonder Gibbs has been even more surly this season. They have brought him to near death at least three times, the only thing left is the lost of his mind or soul. Which do you think the fatigued or absent creative team will give us next?

Originally Posted October 6, 2015

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