Why NCIS became a hit show.

What you're watching.
Nov. 20 2008 6:59 AM

18 Million People Watch NCIS

Should you?

Mark Harmon and Cote de Pablo on NCIS.
Mark Harmon and Cote de Pablo on NCIS 

By some thermometers, NCIS (CBS, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) is the hot show of the moment. Last week's installment played to a record-high 18.8 million viewers—"more than any other show on television for the week," the New York Times reported on Monday, further noting that it's also been a smash in Friday-night repeats and cable-network reruns. The Los Angeles Times cocked an eyebrow at those numbers the same day, likewise observing that the six-year-old series has achieved its success in the absence of any industry accolades, critical praise, or rousing racket of buzz: "The media try very hard to ignore the show." On that last point, I demand a correction. Until this week, ignoring the show hasn't required the slightest effort.

Now, having taken a breather from not even bothering to snub the program, I can report that NCIS—amiable, unpredictable, and no more outlandish than any other prime-time fantasy about battling evil—gives you a lot for your 44 minutes. Mingling elements of a hardy cop show with those of a svelte espionage drama, segueing from macabre moments at the autopsy table to small giggles of office comedy, it's lively with variety. Last week, the heroes, solving a murder, nabbed a gang of jewel thieves; this week, in spy mode, they apprehended a mole threatening national security. The formula is so elastic that it doesn't resemble a formula.

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The show follows a team of federal agents employed by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and team is the operative concept. Many a TV crime-fighting unit offers the audience an idealized vision for its daily life between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., transforming the pressure and drudgery and compensating camaraderie of the workplace into a spectacle of valor, and this one does, too. But something here indicates that the NCIS agents are further bound together like a squad of athletes. Maybe it's their solidarity in the face of frequent turf wars with a haughty FBI. Maybe it's the jockish jocularity they show when huddling in surveillance vans or shooting the breeze by the office snack machine. Perhaps it's all in their frequent donning of ball caps and windbreakers bearing the horsy initialism of the show's title. In any event, on last night's episode, the character Tony DiNozzo—one of those perennial frat boys with a mouth for bold flirting and a head full of pop culture—rhapsodized about the NBA great Bill Russell, encouraging fans in the belief that this group is analogous to the Boston Celtics of yore.

Their Red Auerbach would be Leroy Jethro Gibbs—not, as his name might suggest, an early-modern agriculturalist or some session musician who once played slide guitar with Skynyrd—but a special agent from the school of crisp, taciturn, stoic-but-sensitive bosses. There has been an effort to make the actor in the role, Mark Harmon, look awful, and it has succeeded. The choppy haircut, the noxiously patterned sport coats, the perpetual wedge of white undershirt under his floppy open collar—these all communicate that the man's lack of polish is proof of his trustworthiness.

Gibbs commands the loyalty of subordinates whose determined quirkiness never quite undermines their integrity as characters. The forensic specialist, a perky woman in dour garb, is a Goth girl whose pallid neck will forever be ringed by some velvet choker or studded dog collar. In turn, the fussy British medical examiner will never be seen without a bow tie. The babe on the unit is a former Mossad agent; in keeping with a recent tradition of chick investigators on conservative-leaning shows, she often wears low-slung trousers.

DiNozzo recently explained to a new recruit that "bad guys would rather confess than be interrogated by" Gibbs. He was joking but not really kidding, it seems, as the producers' every choice endorses the sentiment. Where Jack Bauer and the boys on 24 fairly revel in resorting to torture, Gibbs can make a suspected terrorist come clean simply by slapping his palm against the interrogation-room table and shooting rays of resolution from his pale blue eyes. Though a man's man, he never threatens to overdose on his own testosterone—a disposition in keeping with the show's gender-balanced sensibilities. Its warmth keeps its gung-ho instincts in check, as on a rerun that aired last Monday on USA. There, a female Navy pilot faced the wrath of al-Qaida assassins—and also, it turned out, a soccer-mom neighbor with designs on her husband. At some point, in between images of exploding minivans, the pilot shared her troubles as a working mother (and her qualified remorse about having bombed civilians in Afghanistan) with the female agent protecting her. They both stood around a handsome living room holding their coffee cups with two hands, as if this were a commercial advertising human sympathy, the war on terror, and instant cappuccino to boot. The moment suggested that NCIS has thrived by crafting its own genre: action melodrama.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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