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.”