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.