The secret of the long-running procedural’s remarkable success.
Still photo by Sonja Flemming/© 2011 CBS Broadcasting. All Rights Reserved.
There are two kinds of stories written about the CBS drama NCIS (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET): matter-of-fact statements of the show’s spectacular ratings, and incredulous attempts to understand why on earth it is so popular. After watching about 40 episodes over the last two months, I’ve concluded that the incredulity is unwarranted. There’s a simple reason why NCIS’s massive audience keeps growing in its ninth season: It’s the smartest procedural on television.
First, those ratings. NCIS is a juggernaut, one of only two scripted shows to exceed 20 million viewers for an episode this season (the other was the Charlie Sheen-less Two and a Half Men). Last week, according to TV by the Numbers, NCIS was TV’s most-watched scripted program, and the No. 1 drama with adults 18-49. It also does well in syndication: A Sunday night rerun on USA was last week’s 10th-most-viewed cable show, and the show’s semi-ubiquitous presence on that channel has helped cement USA’s position as the highest-rated cable network. It’s even popular overseas—Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his merry band of investigators may be the most-recognizable make-believe Americans in locales such as France and Australia.
Given its rampant popularity, it shouldn’t feel so surprising that NCIS has insanely loyal fans. I judge this not only on the basis of small-sample polls like the one conducted in March by Harris Interactive, which named NCIS America’s favorite show with men, women, Republicans, independents, people banking less than $35,000, those earning $100,000 or more, and residents of every region of the country. It’s also clear to anyone who reads the comments on pieces that express mystification at the show’s popularity or trawls the NCIS forum on IMDB.com. On that IMDB message board, you’ll see all the telltale signs of superfandom: carefully researched timelines, comprehensive FAQs about the show’s exotica, and obsessive discussions of its characters and actors. Elsewhere on the Web, there’s the inevitable fan fiction—I’m particularly fond of Zabby slash. (Those are Ziva-Abby love stories, obvs.)
What are these people so passionate about? NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service—the (real) civilian agency tasked with examining “criminal, foreign, and terrorist intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps.” NCIS follows one such group of agents based in Washington, D.C. (If you’re craving more of a West Coast vibe, try NCIS: Los Angeles, which airs immediately following original-recipe NCIS on Tuesday nights. Now in its third season, the spin-off echoes the mothership’s formula—a bunch of good-looking young agents kept in line by an older mentor. I’m not much of a fan of the Los Angeles version of the show, though. They’re so scruffy.)
There’s nothing particularly innovative about the way the NCIS crew solves crimes, but that’s part of the show’s genius. In the age of DNA, supercomputers, and satellite imagery, NCIS distinguishes itself from every other procedural on television by minimizing the mystery. Sure, the special agents go out to gather evidence, and the techy types in turn analyze it with skill and creativity, but so do the cops and squints on every show from Hawaii Five-0 to CSI: Miami. What’s different is that on NCIS, the mystery is a well-honed character-delivery system.
In one sense, the NCIS cast of characters is the classic procedural crew: cookie-cutter stereotypes who become “characters” based on the quirks they’re assigned. Team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is a coffee-slurping stoic, a former Marine often exasperated by his sometimes-silly underlings. Investigator Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) is a womanizing doofus given to spouting movie trivia. Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) is a cold-hearted, Israeli-born former Mossad operative who mangles the English language. Forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) is a tattooed Goth who drives to work in a customized hearse. And so forth.
But over time, these folks have become more than the sum of their tics, thanks to scripts that have gradually filled in and rounded out their personalities. Unlike the cops and lawyers of Law & Order, NCIS’s special agents and scientists have lives off the job. Flashbacks, visits to the characters’ home towns, and even dreams are artfully woven into the weekly investigations, introducing us to their families and home lives. In contrast with second-tier shows, which tend to solve the crime of the week and then devote the last segment to the bigger, season-long mystery (I’m looking at you, White Collar, Unforgettable, and co.), NCIS integrates these strands into the meat and potatoes of its episodes. And the writers are patient: It wasn’t until the third-season finale of NCIS that viewers learned of the existence of Gibbs’ beloved first wife, Shannon, and daughter, Kelly (and why he had never mentioned them); the scoop on some of his more recent ex-wives is still trickling in.
While some of the show’s action stretches credulity—all that murder, mayhem, and international intrigue is a bit much for one small team—the interpersonal relationships are appealingly believable. As silly as they might sometimes act (a lot of the “humor” is intra-team razzing), the cutups get serious when there’s work to be done. These are men and women of honor, heroes who have all made significant sacrifices for their country. (Ziva David, who recently became a U.S. citizen, killed her own brother to save Gibbs. Her predecessor, Kate Todd, died in the line of duty.) They’re intelligent, hard-working, and devoted. They are loyal to each other, and to the show—five of the seven core characters have been around since Season 1.
Apart from the superior storytelling and admirable characters, what sets NCIS apart is that it understands its audience and reflects their values. At heart, it is a conservative show—it’s surely no coincidence that Democrats were the only group that didn’t name NCIS as its favorite show in the aforementioned Harris poll. (Don’t get cocky, Dems. Your people went with Two and a Half Men.) To the extent that the show’s characters are stereotypes, they’re certainly not liberal ones. Gibbs is an old-fashioned man: strong and silent, a skilled woodworker who doesn’t lock his front door. DiNozzo is a Rush Limbaugh fan who tells sexist jokes and has some seriously retrograde notions about courtship. David represents those aspects of the Israeli character that most appeal to middle America: She’s disciplined, self-reliant, good with guns, and skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Abby may look like a freak, but she’s a church-going patriot.
The characters espouse traditional values, and their internal rules trump ass-covering bureaucratic directives and politically correct regulations. When DiNozzo says something particularly stupid, Gibbs slaps him upside the head; when Abby comes up with something especially impressive, he plants a chaste kiss on her cheek. That’s not how they recommend you do things over in HR, but NCIS is smart enough to know that its fans believe that’s the right way to run a workplace.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.