How did NCIS get to be so cool?

Unlike other crime procedurals, this No. 1 show doesn’t waste time on how it happened


How did NCIS get to be so cool?Why is one episode of NCIS, a forensic murder mystery with a military setting, more popular with young viewers than an entire season of Mad Men? The JAG spinoff, in which Mark Harmon investigates crime in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (Tuesdays on Global at 8 p.m.), has seen steadily rising ratings since it premiered in 2003; this season, it became the No. 1 show on TV and launched its own spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. But it’s also in the top 10 among the 18 to 49 age group, and gains an extra two million viewers from new-media formats. Shane Brennan, who runs NCIS and created the spinoff, says that there are even “college parties where they sit and watch NCIS reruns.” How did this show become cool when no one was paying attention? Maybe because it’s not a procedural like CSI; one of NCIS’s stars, Michael Weatherly, described it to the Los Angeles Times as a throwback to Barney Miller. NCIS is secretly a sitcom with dead bodies.

Brennan, who has also worked on CSI: Miami (as well as the teen drama One Tree Hill), says that other procedural shows spend a lot of time “putting the clues together in a scientific way.” NCIS spends less time on science and therefore has “more time to develop character.” The mysteries on NCIS are sometimes perfunctory or pointless. A recent episode had Agent Gibbs (Harmon) solve the crime at the last minute without explaining how he figured it out; the culprit was a guest character who had only one scene in the episode (and who, inexplicably, confessed right away). Brennan says that on NCIS, “it really doesn’t matter so much what the story is: it’s how the character reacts.” That makes it different from shows where the characters are secondary to plot twists, or procedurals like Law and Order, where topical issues dominate. NCIS has more in common with young-skewing comedies like The Big Bang Theory, which also has simple plots. Like those shows, NCIS is an excuse for viewers to hang out with characters they love.

That means that NCIS spends a surprising amount of its time setting up character relationships or backstories. The most popular moments often revolve around continuing developments in the characters’ lives, like the Israeli agent Ziva (Cote de Pablo) trying to become an official member of the group. For Brennan, story arcs are as important on NCIS as they are on any serialized show: “We are just coming up to the halfway mark of season seven and we already know the final few episodes.” The writers try to give every character a chance to have what Brennan calls “some kind of emotional reaction to the people they’re dealing with, or the crime they’re investigating.”

That may be why NCIS fans are passionate about the people on the show. Message boards are full of discussions about the whole cast, and any viewer can tell you a character’s defining quirks, like Ziva’s malapropisms (“Smurf war” to describe a turf war) or the tendency of chipper goth Abby (Pauley Perrette) to play music at deafeningly loud levels. On House, which has more critical acclaim (but fewer 18 to 49 viewers), everyone is secondary to the star; NCIS surrounds Harmon with people who have become as beloved as he is.

It also helps that NCIS has a silly sense of humour. Creator Donald P. Bellisario made a career out of dramas with a light touch (like Magnum, P.I.), and though he left in 2007 after disputes with Harmon, Brennan has carried on the idea that there should be humour “even in the final act when you’re chasing down the bad guy.” CSI shows mostly use dark gallows humour to break the tension, but NCIS comedy is more like The Office; it has what Brennan calls “naturalistic humour, humour that happens in your own workplace.” Episodes abound with jokes about Gibbs’s semi-fatherly obsession with Abby, nerdy McGee (Sean Murray) being treated badly by everyone in the office, or goofy bits about the characters’ dating lives.

That mix of old-skewing procedural and young-skewing comedy isn’t easy to pull off, and NCIS: Los Angeles proves it: though the new show gets good ratings (thanks to a time slot right after the original), it’s losing much of the parent show’s 18 to 49 viewership because the characters are not as strong. Brennan thinks the main task for the new show is to “build an ensemble and flesh out the characters.” NCIS has shown that a drama needs the same thing as a comedy: characters who, as Brennan puts it, “know how to push each other’s buttons, and how to have fun.”


How did NCIS get to be so cool?

  1. I also think NCIS has the help of 1) hiring really great guest stars and publicizing their roles. I started watching NCIS in Season 5 because they cast Torri Higginson in an episode. After seeing the whole show, I realized what great characters they had and went back to catch up.

    I was able to do that for the other reason I think NCIS continues to grow: 2) USA Network in the US has them on eternal (and overabundant) syndication. Fans in the US are able to DVR every single episode of the first 5 seasons of NCIS without having to run out and get DVDs. Accessibility at the push of a button certainly helps.

  2. The cast chemistry is what makes NCIS so good. Hands down. Hanging out with Gibbs, Tony, Ziva, Abby, McGeek (Tony humour), Ducky, Mr. Palmer and Vance trying to ride herd is always a treat. The story is secondary to how wonderful these characters are and the extremely talented actors who bring them to life.

  3. The popularity of NCIS is baffling to me. Until I read this article, I just assumed NCIS was this generation's Murder She Wrote. I generally prefer to watch serialized shows, so long as they don't become too confusing (I'm looking at you, Heroes). I find that premium cable network shows like Dexter, Mad Men, Weeds, Californication etc… tend to be quite good, because they only have to do 13 episodes per year. This keeps each episode moving at a good pace, and they don't run out of material or have extraneous plot lines.

    However, maybe I'll give this NCIS a shot.

  4. NCIS has characters one tunes in to catch up with each week.
    This show, Monk and Bones are the three best things on T.V.

  5. I've been on board from the beginning but became totally hooked with the last 2 episodes of Season 2 ('SWAK' and 'Twilight').
    What's kept me coming back is exactly what Shane Brennan says: The Characters! Although the "case of the week" interests me most of the time, it's Gibbs, Tony, Tim (McGee), Abby, Ducky, Jimmy, Ziva and Vance that keep me addicted.
    I mean what other show are you going to get inside joke lines like:
    Tony: "I'd have a better chance at getting a date with Jessica Alba than these guys would have at infiltrating Sea Lift. (Michael Weatherly who portrayed Logan Cale/Eyes Only on 'Dark Angel')
    Kate: Gibbs. What did Ducky look like when he was younger?
    Gibbs: Illya Kuryakin. (David McCallum played this character on 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E')

    Two thumbs up (if I had a 3rd it would be raised too.

  6. Bellisario’s lightness of touch is long gone. And so has the good characterisation. Did Brennan really say “it doesn’t matter too much what the story is…”? I can believe it, mind you, because that much has become clear over the past season. The stories are *awful* these days, with enough plot holes to drive several trucks through. I love the characters – but not so much any more as they’re nothing like how they started out and have lost most of their charm in the process. And you DO need a good story to bring out the best in the characters, but good storytelling, I have to say, is not Shane Brennan’s strong suit. The really good episodes were all in seasons 1 – 3, with a few highlights since, like “Requiem” and “Heartland” where they managed to get the balance between storytelling and characterisation right.

    NCIS was much better when it wasn’t “cool” frankly. Now every episode is a giant disappointment when I think of what went before. The episodes are all personal in some way now – they’re all about Ziva, or Franks, or Vance – what happened to the great *cases*, like we had in “Mind Games”, “High Seas”, “SWAK”, “Chained”, “Good Wives Club” and those really terrific early episodes? Now it’s all “someone from Ziva/Gibbs/Vance’s past returns…”. And frankly I could care less about both Ziva and Vance. It’d be a bit more interesting if we saw more of Tony or Abby’s past but for some reason while we know just about everything there IS to know about Gibbs, Ziva and Vance (who has only been there for five minutes), we still know hardly anything about Tony or Abby – we haven’t seen their apartments or one of their parents, and we have very little understanding of what makes them tick. Tony is now only interesting to Shane Brennan as one half of “Tiva” and the “iva” part of that is the one getting all the plotlines!

    • I agree with everything you said too, Katya. NCIS was much better when it wasn't "cool". I miss Bellisario also. Shane Brennan sems like a tool and knowing he worked on One Tree Hill explains so much. Good storylines are few and far between now. Also, I never warmed up to Ziva and all of this focus on her lately is awful. The "Tiva" stuff is contrived and badly written. It totally bores me. I don't know how much longer I can keep watching.

      I heard that Harmon wanted Ballisario gone because they worked too many hours. Looking back, maybe those long hours contributed to a better show overall. I've also heard that Harmon isn't happy with Shane Brennan either. That's kind of funny.

      • I heard that DB left after a big showdown with MH over working hours. I hadn't heard MH wasn't happy with SB either although I can believe it! He MUST know how bad the plots and storytelling are now, and how the characterisation has really suffered from some pretty poor writing. I do wish SB hadn't taken over. DB at least knew how to tell good STORIES and keep his characters IN character. Oh, and he remembered they worked for the NAVY CIS – these days you're lucky if a dead marine or petty officer shows up anywhere on the show. I can appreciate the actors being frustrated with working such long hours, but forcing DB to leave clearly wasn't the answer. What I want from my crime drama is a show that tells some decent crime stories, like it used to, with a military twist. And GOOD characterisation doesn't mean them all chasing each other into the restroom (ick!) every week for an ambiguous and poorly written flirting session! I want the team vibe and funny banter back and no more of the awful Tiva/Ziva plotlines.

        • For all of the talk of how the characters are more important than the story, the thing is the plots AND characterization were better at the beginning. The characters have been stagnant for a long time now and are bordering on cartoonish. When the writers pitch an episode I imagine it sounds like " Ok something…bad happens…somewhere, anyway Tony and Ziva have a vague conversation in the bathroom, McGee says something about computers nobody understands, Gibbs grunts, Vance acts mysterious while Abby drinks a Caf!Pow." The show can be written by Mad Libs at this point.

          I don't expect every episode to be a gem but they could at least make some attempt to write a real story. I long for some great episodes like Enigma, Bete Noire, Dead Man Talking, Sub Rosa, SWAK, and Twilight. This season I've liked certain scenes here and there, but I can't name one episode I thought was solid all the way through. NCIS is now getting press and recognition through the strength of it's older episodes constantly being rerun.

          • First – I think it is irresponsible of anyone to spread rumours as to whether MH is "unhappy" with SB. You better have more than a "I heard" to back that up… or else it is just pure supposition and insinuates slander on two a very talented men.

            It is well documented that Harmon (who because of his position took on the responsibility to stand up and speak out for others) was looking out for all the cast and crew as they faced intolerable working conditions – up to 19 hour days,6 days per week, for months on end – because of disorganization at the helm. Conditions like that don't make any work environment "better". It wasn't just a case of one person being "unhappy" that he worked a few hours overtime.

            It is also well documented that conditions did improve when SB took over and from mutiple reports in many media outlets, the cast and crew of NCIS now work on one of the most satisfied and cohesive sets in Hollywood. They have unanimously said that they are absolutely overjoyed with the way the show is going, proud of the hard work they do and happy the way the set is run. So let's stop with the rumours.

    • Good heavens, I thought it was just *me*! And, I miss Mr. Palmer! And Gerald, for that matter.

  7. This is a great article. I am 65 years old, and I absolutely love this show! It is definitely "an excuse to hang out with the NCIS crew." These people are wonderful, and I consider all of them my friends. It reminds me of the original Star Trek, how much I loved them. And Mark Harmon is lovely. I´m in California, and also watch all the reruns over and over. But I´m glad to see Tony and Zivy moving along with a relationship. I love all the characters and I love this show.
    Elizabeth, California

  8. Since the USA Network lauched the concept of "Characters Welcome" each one of their shows has become a huge success, I was taking with my sister in France the other day and she said, "sorry I have to hang-up my favorite show is starting" and it was "House". We started talking about our favorite shows and we laughed realizing that we both wer big fans of NCIS, Monk and House. I am not so thrilled with PSych and Burn Notice, the reason being that I don't find the characters so attaching. Yes, the concept of prioritizing characters over plot is what makes these series so successful. As well as the fact that secondary characters have their moment to shine. Great casts!!! Bravo.

  9. And I love it that Tony loves Magnum. I loved that show also. All the NCIS characters are wonderful. I am older and have many friends who also watch. I got my 30 something daughter hooked. It is the best show on TV. I used to think House was the greatest until I saw that episode where Kate was killed. That was the best kill on tv ever!

  10. I can’t afford cable in this recession but I still like to stay up with what’s happening on Dexter. So I use the net to watch for free and I typically use http://www.watchdexterforfree.com and that gets the job done for me every week.

  11. I for one love the fact that NCIS puts the "dead petty officer story" in the background. And I disagree that this is something new; NCIS has always been a character-driven show, and has only gotten better. Life changes, people change, so it stands to reason that these characters, too, would change. Who wants to be stuck stagnating in season one NCIS? I say Bravo! to Shane Brennan and all connected to the show, for making these wonderfully entertaining characters come to life!

  12. I miss the days when they at least paid lip service to the stories making some sort of sense. One of the best episodes of the series "Call of Silence" had a fascinating plot *and* well written character moments. If the plots don't matter you might as well just stick them all in the bathroom and talk for 42 minutes. Oh wait, Shane Brennan is already doing that.

  13. What! I love the characters, but really, "Brennan says that on NCIS, “it really doesn't matter so much what the story is: it's how the character reacts.” I care about the stories, and the characters, why not focus on both. NCIS has always balanced the two, character development and amazing, sophisticated, well-explained stories. Why tilt the scales? It's unnecessary!

  14. I think the writer hit the nail on the head about a principal reason for the popularity of the show. I also think that overtime, NCIS Los Angeles will develop more popularity – remember that NCIS has taken 7 seasons to get to this leve.

    Another great show with some nice character development occuring, is Castle (on Monday at 10pm). Great humour and the cast is starting to gel. Give it a view.

    • For what it is worth, both the leads on Castle are Canadian.

  15. I've been a fan right from the start, and I agree that the last few seasons have not been as good as the first 3. Maybe Shane Brennan doesn't think a plot matters (and if you watch NCIS:LA which is totally his creation, you'll understand why), but these are great characters in search of a plot, IMHO. Any plot! I miss Bellisario at the helm, he knew his characters and how to bring out the humor, look at Magnum. It's fine to have a serious episode now and again, but there was always a light touch of humor. And I'm totally sick and tired of Tiva, which I find completely without any chemistry at all. Stop holding our show for ransom, Brennan, and give us back the real NCIS!

  16. All these are good points, on both sides of the argument. Fact is, something is different about the show, and we fans are seeing that. Many are left wondering why, and now we know. Question is, what can be done? Mr. Brennan is not going to give it all back to Mr. Bellisario, or he might have a revolt. Perhaps if he allowed more input from Don PB regarding storylines, then the show might get back to its Magnum PI – style roots.

  17. how is it to be on NCIS

  18. Fantastic Show

    Reminds me of a civilian Combat like back in the sixties. Gibbs is just like Saunders(Vic Morrow). The only problem I have on the staff. Tony and McGee should be getting a little seasoned and should be aware of some Gibbisms.

    Take care

  19. Second – It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to offer up criticism of the writers, directors and producers of a long running show like NCIS. Looking forward to lots of hit TV shows from the self-appointed "experts" who obviously have all the answers to what makes a great TV series (from reading their posts here) and yet sadly have not actually produced anything themselves, other than blow some smoke in the comments section of Maclean's.

    Until these "experts" actually get their names in the credits of a TV programme that draws an average of more than 20 million viewers in the US market, I think I'll put my trust in the professionals who continue to make NCIS a highly entertaining, well-written, brilliantly cast show that is on my "have to watch" list every week.

  20. Personally the only thing suprissing is that it tool the press so long to figure out that it was popular, and popular amoung the younger generationas as well, like I joined mid-season 6, only because of the broadcasting schedules of my local network, I had actually never seen or heard of NCIS before, but was instantly hooked, and why wouldn't there be collage parties of watching NCIS, its such a great show

  21. Where we stand right now (January 2010) is that NCIS-Los Angeles is getting very strong, very fast, and these two shows back-to-back are the highlight of my week!!! I wrote before that I love NCIS, but I want to add now that I love each season, but am happy to see how everyone has evolved since the beginning and I prefer the seasons since Mark started producing. (2007.) Ziva and McGee have added a lot since they joined the cast. long ago. I also feel Shane Brennan is carrying out the humor aspect just fine..(I loved Magnum intensely!!!) –.apparently Mark Harmon and Donald Bellasario couldn't continue together. We´ve known that two years now, it´s not a surprise. (And Sean Murray is Bellasario's step-son and David Bellisario is one of the directors.) Once again, incredible show! and now Chris O´Donnell is also at the top of my list of wonderful people. These two shows are my favorite, and House has been third, but I prefer the real joy I feel when I hang out with the NCIS folk.
    Elizabeth, California

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