Chasing bad guys the Navy way: “NCIS”

“NCIS” / Creators: Don McGill and Donald P. Bellisario / Executive Producer: Donald P. Bellisario / Premiered: 9/23/2003 / Network: CBS / Reruns on: USA, ION / Regular cast (since 2003): Leroy Jethro Gibbs -– Mark Harmon; Anthony “Tony” Di Nozzo — Michael Weatherly; Abigail “Abby” Sciuto -– Pauley Perrette; Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard -– David McCallum / Timothy “Tim” McGee — Sean Murray / Additions to regular cast: Director Leon Vance -– Rocky Carroll (2008-present) / Former regular cast: Director Jenny Shepard – Lauren Holly (2005-08); Caitlin “Kate” Todd – Sasha Alexander (2003-05); Ziva David — Cote de Pablo (2005-2013).


Donald Bellisario has been around the TV game for decades. The former Marine (1955-59) created the very successful “Magnum P.I.” and “JAG,” as well as the long-running “Quantum Leap” and the lesser-known “Airwolf.” Bellisario’s most successful shows are characterized by well-rounded characters (at least one of whom has a military background), an ensemble cast where each character gets at least one episode focused on them, military-flavored humor (which is usually dark, as in “Can’t we just shoot ’em?”), and characters who are passionate about what they do.

“NCIS” is centered on the special agents assigned to the Major Case Response Team of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Senior Special Agent (SA) Leroy Jethro Gibbs leads his three-member team in solving the mysteries of various Navy personnel’s demises -– when he’s not building another boat that he’ll never sail that’s named after another ex-wife. While it has elements similar to “CSI” (another CBS show, starring William Peterson as lead investigator Gil Grissom, who’s leaving that show), its military-based setting and Naval law-enforcement angle set it apart in several ways. Gibbs or the Director gives the orders, the team carries them out, and while they are often asked their opinions, the team members are a little more afraid of Gibbs than Grissom’s people are of him. The interesting thing is that they’re more afraid of Gibbs’ brain than any punishment he might hand them for screwing up. Even the dreaded head-slap.

“JAG” introduced the “NCIS” characters and concept to the viewing public with the technique used for the Miami and New York City spin-off shows of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” In short, have some or all of the cast of the spin-off show make appearances in an episode of the existing series. Dick Wolf’s “Law and Order” shows (the original, “SVU” and “Criminal Intent”) used the same technique.

Several story and character elements appear in nearly every episode (Gibbs interrogating suspects, Di Nozzo being a rather sexist and arrogant pretty boy, Abby explaining forensic evidence to Gibbs and others, Ziva stalking around like she’s chasing every terrorist alive and she has no time for fun, etc.), but the stories in each episode differ enough to keep them from being carbon copies of previous ones. The one-liners fly around like paper airplanes — very carefully targeted ones — and the classic head-slap is a constant possibility. Di Nozzo gets most of the head-slaps, but he’s delivered a few himself, as has Abby. No one, however, head-slaps Gibbs except Gibbs. Mark Harmon has that “don’t even think about it” stare down pat, and has enough sense to use it sparingly.

That humor, and the way the characters work like a family, melds the series together; without it, “NCIS” would look like a really bad remake of “Dragnet.” It’s the kind of humor Bellisario and the “Magnum” writers developed really well during the course of the “Magnum” run, a bantering interplay between characters that recalls the early Hollywood studio films (Katharine Hepburn’s early films, “My Girl Friday,” etc.). “NCIS” humor is also more intelligent than the level to which “CSI” writers have descended in the last few seasons. “CSI” relies on episode-opening groaners far too much now. In the Season 6 opener for “NCIS,” the assistant coroner makes a groaner joke (aka a spoonerism, a play on words) to one of the replacement agents, and neither Gibbs nor Ducky even smile.

There’s a similar dark humor among the characters of Bellisario-created shows, but the “NCIS” crew is a lot more playful. And because it’s a show that debuted after 9/11, there’s a running plot thread about terrorists and the people who give them guns — one in particular that Director Jenny Shepard wanted to kill more than she wanted to breathe, and for very personal reasons. Credit goes to the writers on this show that the wish-fulfillment card is very seldom played, because not using it makes for much better television.

Photography techniques used on “NCIS” follow the handheld and jumpcut standards adapted from feature films, with a few twists. Camera shots of cadavers in Ducky’s lab are full-body, but almost always with an overhead lab light aimed directly at the torso to disguise the genitals. With both sexes of cadavers, the chest is usually already open, so no worries about showing female mammary appendages. It’s a clever way to sidestep television censor restrictions in order to make the scene look as realistic as possible. I bet the sfx team on this show had a field day with devising the most realistic props for these scenes; they’re very well done.

It’s a safe bet that anyone who enjoys either the “Law and Order” or “CSI” shows would also enjoy “NCIS.” The foundations for all three are similar, but the way they’re fleshed out makes them each unique.

Background Trivia

* Gibbs was a Marine Corps sniper.

* Di Nozzo was a Baltimore Metro PD homicide detective.

* McGee is a biomedical engineer and computer forensics specialist.

* Ziva David is the Mossad liaison officer (for the terrorist plot angle). Her father, Eli David (played by Michael Nouri), is the head of Mossadand her half-brother Ari is a double agent.

* Abby Sciuto was raised Roman Catholic in New Orleans and still attends church services, which probably accounts for her fascination for grandiose ritual and pageantry (as reflected in her personal Goth style) and affinity for being on a convent bowling team.

* Dr. Mallard was in the British military, and possibly worked in their intelligence community.

* Director Jenny Shepard and Gibbs once worked as field agents for a U.S. intelligence agency and had a romance while on assignment in Europe (Paris, maybe?).

* Caitlin Todd was a Secret Service agent.