The NCIS Fan Conundrum

Brian Ford Sullivan at The Futon Critic was one of relatively few critics to file a report from the NCIS panel at Paleyfest. Relatively, I mean, to the number of critics at the Lost or Modern Family panels. Sullivan mentioned online that he was “one of only two critics in the press rows,” which if true is kind of unfortunate. Even though there’s no spectacularly interesting information in the report, I’m glad someone went, because while NCIS is not a show I feel compelled to watch whenever it’s on, I’m quite fascinated by the passion of its fan base. I’ve written about this before, but over the last few years, a very unscientific sampling of message boards, comment sections, and other barometers of fan opinion has convinced me that NCIS has a fan following that is every bit as passionate and involved as Lost‘s or Battlestar Galactica‘s and (of course) larger than the followings for various unsuccessful genre shows. It’s a fan base that is undoubtedly different (different people, different demographics), but it has the qualities we associate with a really hard-core fan base: emotional involvement with the show and a tendency to argue about where it’s going next, and deep attachments to favourite characters. The audience at the panel was upset that Pauley Perrette (Abby) was not able to attend; she’s got to be somewhere near the most passionately-loved character in television, judging by fan reaction to her.

Now, the existence of a really passionate fan following doesn’t qualify a show as great. And I have a feeling that if NCIS was a great show I probably wouldn’t even be able to tell for certain, since it’s in a genre I don’t  feel very attached to. (I love mysteries, but the genuine “procedural” — a show devoted to the actual step-by-step official process for solving a mystery — is not something I’ve ever been as into as the loose, procedure-free, Rockford Files type of mystery.) I’ve had some big fans of the show tell me that it’s not as good now as it was before Don Bellisario was forced out, others tell me that it is better now, and I can’t always tell the difference. Still, the existence and depth of the fan following is something that I think is important, because there is a critical tendency to assume that all these procedural shows are “comfort food,” shows that people watch and enjoy and then don’t really think about, unlike the shows with more critical cachet. (Or even shows that are now critically loathed but are in formats that are presumed to be buzz-worthy, like Heroes.) But it depends on the show. The episodic/procedural format of NCIS disguises the fact that its fans are into it for story development, character development, discussing the future meaning and moral import of the characters’ actions, and all the other stuff that distinguishes a regular comfort-food show from a show that really pulls people in.

As to why NCIS has a more genuinely passionate fan base than Chuck or various other shows that you could name… that’s a little trickier. I’ve tried to answer that before but I don’t think I’ve completely hit on the reason. Don Bellisario, even though he’s not involved any more, probably has something to do with it; ever since Magnum P.I. he has had an enviable ability to create characters who really resonate with audiences. (Audiences not only like his characters, they have this strange protective instinct for them — we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.) And I don’t mean to talk like it’s the only show of its type with a really strong fan base; this is an under-examined area of television fandom in general.

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The NCIS Fan Conundrum

  1. Also, it is just me, or does it seem like that cult only just popped up in the last few years? I swear, that show had been on for 4 or 5 seasons before I heard anyone say much about it, then suddenly it was everyone's favorite TV show. My brother (who's devoted to LOST, The Wire, Deadwood, and other standard-issue TV-fan passions) told me a few months ago that he had downloaded and watched every episode of NCIS.

    Well, I was surprised, because I'd never heard him even mention the show before.

    • It definitely has gotten more popular in the last few years, as noted herel It was not a top 10 show until the fifth season (the first without Bellisario, though I wouldn't be prepared to give that as a reason) and exploded in popularity this season.

    • It definitely has gotten more popular in the last few years, as noted herel It was not a top 10 show until the fifth season (the first without Bellisario, though I wouldn't be prepared to give that as a reason) and exploded in popularity this season.

      • Not sure on the timing here, but it may have something to do with syndication – now that it's on whatever cable channel is showing it, a lot of people who might not have seen it before may have started checking it out. Depending on how many episodes per season, syndication might have started after the end of the fourth season.

    • I have no idea why, but I've become a big fan of this show recently, even though I'm sure at one point I might have mocked someone (/many people) for being a fan of this show. I'd suggest that it's because something changed since it's early days that hooked me in later, but I've subsequently seen most of the earlier episodes from when i used to mock it (mostly ignorantly) and I've enjoyed those as well!?!?!

      The characters are the thing I think; I just really enjoy them. They're pretty archetypal, and it's not like they have great depth, or terribly complex back stories. There's just something about them (or perhaps about how they relate to each other). There's an, I don't know, "charm" there? I kinda feel like I just like these people, and spending an hour a week laughing with (/at) them. The lightheartedness of the show is also a big feature.

      Anyway, I'm not a rabid fan, but I'd definitely cop to being a fan, and as I mentioned, I used to kind of role my eyes at the notion of NCIS, so I just think that's interesting. There's got to be SOMETHING to that, even if I can't pinpoint it.

  2. I'm a fan of anything by Joss Whedon, Lost, X-Files, etc. (those shows that typically have the rabid fan base), and I also love NCIS. I've been wondering myself why I like it so much (and at the same time have no regard for CSI and other procedurals). And it really comes down to the characters and their interaction with eachother (something you've written about in the context of sitcoms too). Also, NCIS, like House, does have long-term storylines, though usually buried under the episodic adventure of each week…

    Great post.

  3. A question for Jaime/everyone. Is NCIS the textbook example of a spin-off which is more successful than the series that it came from (of course, you'll have to decide whether "more successful" even applies at all considering NCIS hasn't yet aired for as long as its predecessor did)? Are there many other (better?) examples.

    I also wonder how many spin offs have inspired their own spin off? I mean, there are often multiple iterations spun off of an original (3 CSI's, 3 L&O's) but in that case I see the subsequent spin-offs as additional spins off of the original, as opposed to spin-offs of the spin-off (i.e. CSI: NY is a spin off of CSI, not a spin-off of CSI: Miami, at least as I'm viewing it). In this case however we have NCIS: LA which to me is clearly a spin off of NCIS and has no (real) connection whatsoever to the show that got the ball rolling. Is there much history of that? Am I over-parsing?

  4. I think NCIS is so successful because it incorporates as much of the stuff that makes shows like Lost and Bones and Chuck have such passionate followings – quirky, interesting characters, banter-y dialogue, serialized storylines – as you can fit into the more procedural CBS format. It's really a hybrid show, possibly the only one on the network, and that means it attracts both the CBS audience and the "cool TV" audience, which needs a procedural or two to wash down the heavier stuff.

    Also, I had a ticket to this but could not attend. Might have been fun to be one of THREE.

    • I so love it when my AV Club and Macleans addictions overlap like this.

  5. I believe the surge in viewers is due to the marathons on USA Network. Many viewers on other message boards will state that they started watching then and then decided to check out the show as it aired on Tuesday nights. It also has reruns on ION and Sleuth (though I don't think I've seen it on Sleuth).

    The appeal is definitely the characters and the way they interact. I'm not a huge fan of procedurals, but NCIS is more than a case. Heck, sometimes the case is secondary to the characters. It's a great show and deserves the attention it has received. If only the Emmy's would give it some respect.

  6. As a TV critic, the unlikely show I remember people going absolutely nuts over — nuts enough to write me endless letters and call me on the phone (pre-ubiquitous email) — was Diagnosis Murder. And these weren't the old-lady Dick Van Dyke fans that Hollywood would have you believe — it was teens, young mothers, young professionals, you name it. I never really figured it out.

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