We ate in the living room using TV trays - with two hours TV to watch, we didn’t have time to separate dinner from the mix. Our finish time of 9 p.m. is about the time my dad starts packing it in for the night, after all. So there we sat, in a recliner, as NCIS, the most popular drama on television, premiered for its 12th season and was followed by a spinoff, NCIS: New Orleans. Yes, CBS’s NCIS garnered an average 18.51 million viewers last season (22.39 million with a full week’s worth of DVR playback included), and there’s little doubt its predictably jazz- and gumbo-filled addition to the franchise will rake in similar numbers. My dad loves NCIS and its ilk, such as CSI. It’s must-see TV for him, along with NBC’s The Blacklist and CBS’s Person of Interest, not to mention USA’s Suits and Covert Affairs. They’re the kind of shows that elicit an “Oh my goodness!” from my dad, almost 62, at each twist or cliffhanger. It’s true some of them have style and talented actors involved and are generally enjoyable to watch. But NCIS is in a world of its own, one that is devoid of actual tension, charm, character development, and believability. NCIS is just plain not good. But it is beloved. So I watched it and its New Orleans spinoff to try to understand why.
My time-stamped notes from the two-hour block aren’t thrilling; “Russia looks like California”; “pigtails girl is way too emotional”; “remember when Mark Harmon was on The West Wing? Oh C.J. I’m sorry!”; etc. I documented lines like this one that came in the NCIS cold open: “Calm yourself, counselor. I wouldn’t dream of implicating Mother Russia. My interest will remain personal. Deeply. Personal.” That comes from a Russian mercenary, and the last bit coincides with him pointing to a picture of Harmon, the stoic star of NCIS. This show is all about Harmon and his character, Gibbs; in this premiere, he shoots and kills several people - “Gibbs is a sniper,” my dad tells me - knifes another one to death, and cauterizes a wound using the blade of knife he heated in a fire. He’s the naval MacGyver, quiet and self-sacrificing, the leader who stays behind to stop the pursuing bad guys from catching his team seeking rescue. Out he glides from a hiding spot, his silver hair shining in the moonlight, to confront danger — terror, even — without flinching.
My dad felt the tone of this season premiere felt a little off, and I can only hope it doesn’t represent the series at its best. The amount of stilted conversations, awkward pauses, and long looks between characters lacking meaning present is shocking. I’ve seen better acting and editing on The Vampire Diaries. But NCIS and now NCIS: New Orleans are not about effective storytelling. They are about two things: Winning, and winning with the help of technology.
Gibbs gunned down the mercenary at the end of the premiere only to learn he survived. But do you actually think Gibbs is in danger? The plane he and colleagues were on was shot down over Russia, and all the main characters survived the crash with minor injuries. That extra who wasn’t introduced? Dead. The pilot? Injured, and given some scenes during which we were supposed to care for her, and then dead. Gibbs? Doing great, thanks. He’s there to kick ass, so get out of his way, logic. His compatriots back in the U.S. are able to track him thanks to highfalutin technology that allows them to zoom in and very clearly see the outlines of humans walking through the Russian countryside. (If this exists, maybe we should let Obama know about it re: confronting ISIS?) Anyway, the gadgets are the stars of the show, just as the medical shots and discoveries rule CSI. It’s some of the best smoke-and-mirrors work I’ve ever seen, as characters spout jargon and stare intently at computer screens to give the impression of hard work, and it carries over into New Orleans with ease.
There, a different silver fox who was popular in the 1980s, Scott Bakula, rules his NCIS office with a determined brow and equally determined phrases such as, “We face what we gotta face.” He’d almost be Byronic, if he had the time to give a sh*t. But he’s busy pressing a button here to quickly connect him to his medical examiner (played by C.C.H. Pounder, the only black member of his team located in a city that is 2/3 black), or looking at some other gizmo over there to help him solve the case before him. NCIS: New Orleans flowed a tad better than its predecessor, but it was much of the same. Bakula (his character’s name is Dwayne Cassius Pride) solves the case but also learns a bad guy, a politician played by Steven Webber who deserves a better TV comeback than this, is still getting away with wrongdoing. But Pride warns him that he’s in his city. “Your city?” “And don’t you forget it,” Pride says as he puts on his sunglasses and walks away whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“I enjoyed ‘em,” my dad, whom I love very much, said afterward. He’s not averse to more complex dramas and mainly comes across those in movies. But as he’s aged, he has found comfort in procedurals, in formulas. “I like the characters. I’ve been watching NCIS for years, and you just kinda get to know ‘em. There’s connections in there — I’ll know that happened two or three seasons ago. Gibbs is the — it all revolves around him. The others have good parts, but everything revolves around him.” Much will be the same with Pride and his New Orleans tales. They’ll be simple, and patriotic, and the good guys will use computers and science to solve everything, and they’ll win. It’s an easy and comfortable formula. It makes sense. And my dad isn’t interested in me telling him NCIS isn’t good. “Well I enjoy it, and that’s all that matters to me.
“I have about four or five programs that I like to watch, and really, that’s it. That’s why I just record them, and I can watch them, and I erase them. And go on.”
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.