<i>NCIS</i>: America's Favorite Show and What It Tells Us

How was the season finale? On the anti-climactic side, actually, and not nearly as good as the penultimate episode, one of the show's best. But it did set up an intriguing beginning to the show's ninth season in the fall.
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Tuesday night saw the season finale of NCIS, the most watched scripted television series in America. Indeed, if a national poll is to be believed, the veteran CBS procedural about Navy cops (NCIS standing for Naval Criminal Investigative Service), finishing its eighth season, is not only the most popular current scripted show in the country, it's the favorite show of all time.

How was the season finale? On the anti-climactic side, actually, and not nearly as good as the penultimate episode, one of the show's best. But it did set up an intriguing beginning to the show's ninth season in the fall, one which says nefarious things about our national security apparat. More about that in a moment. There be some spoilers ahead.

So, NCIS, the most popular show of all-time? Really?

I mean, I've liked the show from the beginning, though there have been long stretches of time, including most of this season with election distractions intervening, when I haven't seen it. But the favorite show of all-time?

For a procedural, NCIS is filled with humor.

Rounding out the top five behind NCIS are CSI, M*A*S*H*, Two and a Half Men, and Seinfeld.

The rest of the top 10 of all-time are Lost, Star Trek, Friends and Criminal Minds tied for eighth place, and I Love Lucy and Law and Order in a tie for 10th place.

NCIS moved up from fourth in the same poll taken in 2009, to first this year, supplanting CSI. (The biggest fall between the two polls was experienced by 24, which ranked fifth on the all-time list in 2009 and dropped out of the top 15 this month.)

What makes this all the more interesting is that NCIS is one of the least written about major TV shows around. Quite unlike some of the others on the list, including Star Trek and Lost, which I've written about, along with 24.

Clearly Mad Men, which as many readers know I write about very extensively, is not on the list. It's not all that popular, though it's come to have immense cultural cachet. Nor are other critical faves such as The West Wing and The Sopranos, which did generate big audiences, especially the former.

So why doesn't NCIS get more press attention? The obvious answer would be that it is another CBS procedural, appealing to the Geritol Generation. (I don't know if that term is still used, but you know what I mean.) However, that doesn't really apply to NCIS. It always does very well in the ratings among younger demographics and is full of youthful, though hardly teeny bopper, characters.

In the Harris Poll, it's tops among baby boomers and "Matures" (66 and up) but is also tied among Generation X with Lost and Friends.

As you might expect with a military-oriented show, it's tops among Republicans. But it is also tops with political independents. The favorite show with Democrats is Two and a Half Men, and I defy any political consultant to work that into their issue matrix. Except for the obvious move, of course: Have Charlie Sheen headline your fundraisers instead of his dad, West Wing star Martin Sheen.

NCIS is tops with all regions of the country, and with all income groups, except $75K to $99K, where M*A*S*H* prevails.

Having established that it's not a show that appeals principally to redneck geezers, why doesn't it get written about more? Especially in a media culture in which idiotic reality shows are lapped up like cognac.

Promo for the NCIS episode "Swan Song," the penultimate episode of Season 8.

Well, it is a procedural, and cool/would-be cool writer types don't tend to write much about those, although I recall CSI getting more attention. And it has a military theme. Even though the military is clearly the most respected and popular institution in America -- something consistent in the Gallup Poll of recent years -- the media doesn't focus on it much unless wars are dragging on or unless something spectacular happens. Like, well, I've written a few things about that one.

So, we have this show, which a huge audience in America has discovered, but cultural writers and analysts have largely ignored. Do I recommend it? Sure. Why don't I write about it regularly? Because I'm a political analyst, not an entertainment writer, and the focus I have for TV series is essentially taken up by Mad Men.

NCIS is not the sort of show that lends itself to a great deal of weekly analysis and intensive recapping, unlike a Mad Men or a Lost. (It also won't burn you the way Lost did.) I've noticed that its advocates who do recap it tend not to do so at great length. It's a procedural show, one with a lot of action. Though not as much action as 24, which I considered writing about regularly, but realized that much of what I'd be writing would be along the lines of "And then Jack Bauer ran around the corner... "

NCIS isn't that action-packed, nor is it so clearly a post-9/11 show (though as I've pointed out several times, 24 was created before 9/11). The team of NCIS agents, working out of Washington's Navy Yard (the show is actually shot in Southern California, much of it at home base Santa Clarita) deal with al Qaeda types from time to time, along with a sizable share of mostly credibly rendered Washington politics, but take on all manner of cases affecting Navy and Marine Corps personnel. (Marine Corps because the Marines are part of the Department of the Navy.)

Following the murder of their teammate, Kate Todd, Gibbs and DiNozzo compare notes on two brand-new figures, Mossad agent Ziva David and NCIS Director Jenny Shepherd.

In fact, the agents, reflecting the real world agency, are all civilians. Of the core group, only the team leader, ex-Marine Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by star Mark Harmon, comes off with any particular military bearing or background, at least of the U.S. variant. Quirky medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard -- played by British actor David McCallum, the object of little Sally Draper's, er, crush in Mad Men in his '60s The Man from UNCLE incarnation as nice Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin -- was an officer in the Royal Army. Ex-Mossad agent Ziva David -- a surprisingly convincing Israeli agent, given that she is played by Chilean-born singer Cote de Pablo -- has a certain swagger. Ace agent/class clown Tony DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly, whose previous greatest claim to fame was his engagement to then co-star Jessica Alba, is distinctly un-military, as are cyber-whiz Tim McGee (Sean Murray) and warm-and-fuzzy Goth forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (played by fan fave Pauley Perrette).

It's a comfortable, quirky cast of characters that brings a lot of humor and just the right feel of an amiably dysfunctional family that is also a functional investigative team as it pursues sometimes off-beat, standalone cases and recurring entanglements with jihadists, arms dealers, and a notably unsympathetic Mossad. (Ziva David's side-winding dad is the Israeli spy agency's director.)

NCIS is one of the rare shows that has actually become more popular as it has aged, first becoming a top 10 program in its fifth season and reaching its series high of nearly 23 million viewers earlier this year.

While the show did very well from the beginning, its late ratings surge coincides with the departure of series creator Donald Bellisario, who also created the hit show that spun off NCIS, the long-running JAG, which was about the adventures of Navy lawyers. Bellisario created several others shows before that, including a great favorite of my youth, the ever amiable and not infrequently heart-felt Magnum, PI.

Since he left the show, NCIS seems rather less flag-waving. I like some flag-waving, to a point. I've noticed that point is no longer reached in the current iteration of the show.

NCIS has become so big that it spun off a sister show, NCIS: Los Angeles, which is also a major hit.

Following the death of a Mossad agent, DiNozzo is interviewed by Mossad Director General Eli David, Ziva's father.

It didn't seem like that was in the cards when the show began in 2003.

I watched the show at the beginning, liked it, but didn't love it, and lost track. Then, after wrenching my back a few years ago while working out, I, like many people I know, discovered the re-runs on the USA Network. Those showings played a tremendous role in boosting the show, providing an easy new access point to an already well-established show.

In Harmon, NCIS has a star who is more Gary Cooper than John Wayne, though like Wayne he also played major college football in Los Angeles. But where Wayne (under his real name, Marion Morrison) was a tackle at USC, Harmon was a star quarterback for UCLA in the '70s.

But the real key to Harmon's big star turn on NCIS came from a very different show, The West Wing.

During the midst of West Wing's Emmy-winning streak in 2002, the show introduced a new character, Secret Service agent Simon Donovan, to protect White House press secretary C.J. Cregg from a seeming terrorist stalker. Allison Janney won the best actress Emmy for that season. The show's producers cast Harmon in the Secret Service role. He earned an Emmy nomination for his work.

The first iteration of Mark Harmon's NCIS protagonist emerged on The West Wing, in the form of Secret Service agent Simon Donovan.

After a four-episode arc, with C.J. successfully protected, Harmon's character dies a senseless death in West Wing's season finale. Tragically dead agent, very sad C.J., and ... star of a new hit TV show. Harmon's Simon Donovan is a more urbane version of Harmon's Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the protagonist of NCIS, as you can see looking at these West Wing scenes just above. I have no doubt that the producers of JAG, the hit show that produced NCIS as a spin-off less than a year after his final West Wing episode aired, saw Mark Harmon in this role and said, that's the guy.

Even though Harman as Gibbs is the guy, he couldn't save this latest NCIS season finale from being on the underwhelming side. It was the culmination of an unusual five episode arc detailing the search for the "Port to Port killer," a serial killer preying on Navy personnel when they make landfall.

In the excellent penultimate episode, Gibbs' mentor Mike Franks meets his maker at the hands of the serial killer, who turns out to be a naval officer unhinged by his part in a secret assassination program. Franks, played by Muse Watson (of guilty pleasure classic Prison Break), is mostly present as a confidante-ghost presence in the episode. He prompts some unusual for this sort of show musings on life and death as the series wends its way into the realm of political/intelligence world conspiracy with a secret CIA/Navy assassination bureau, seemingly Israeli-linked, undertaking killings both for "national security" and as "political favors."

But the finale dissipates hard-won suspense at nearly every turn and the fearsome assassin proves suspiciously easy to take down. So suspicious, in fact, that it may be part of a segue to the new season. In fact, the episode works best for that purpose, establishing a shadowy new reality in which the team must operate. The secretary of the Navy has resigned for his role in the backfiring operation only to be replaced by another high-powered politico with a shadowy agenda. Our team is still together but DiNozzo is now ordered to spy on an undisclosed colleague who is supposedly a big security leak.

A riveting episode? No. But a good set-up for yet another season as America's most popular drama.

America likes military lite -- would the military be so very popular if Americans actually had to, you know, serve? -- and in NCIS has found its show. 24 proved too intense, controversial, and ultimately repetitive and far-fetched. Other post-9/11 shows, such as The Unit, were too by the book in their depiction of the military and intelligence worlds.

NCIS provides the aura and seeming certitude of the military wrapped inside out in a quirky yet comforting procedural package. Gibbs is a hard-ass, but a very nice hard-ass, who usually has all the answers thanks to his well-honed "gut." And when he doesn't, the quirky science nerds are there to help him out in their reassuringly civvy ways.

Yet there are forces out there that the team doesn't have a handle on. Maybe nefarious forces, maybe within the ranks of our allies and our own government and industry. Just as Americans think there are.

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