Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Remarkably Unremarkable

Most new TV shows get cancelled within their first year. A few TV shows get critical acclaim, awards, and run as long as the producers and actors feel like sticking around. Then there are shows that go about their business in a quiet unassuming manner and just last. NCIS is one of those. In its second season the show has been first or second in it's time 7 p.m. CST time slot and it has usually taken something big - like baseball playoffs or American Idol - to move it out of first place. The show normally has a rating of between 10 and 11 and an average share of 15. It does less well in the key 18-49 year old demographic but usually finishes second and occassionally first.

What makes NCIS enough of a favourite to draw such numbers? The biggest factor is that it's produced by Donald Bellisario. While Bellisario has had some missteps (does anyone remember Tequilla and Bonetti because I sure don't) he has a good track-record for produces solid interesting shows. He was the man behind Magnum P.I., Airwolf, Quantum Leap and of coure JAG. Even his failures, like Tales of the Gold Monkey and First Monday are usually interesting and watchable. The next element is a recognisable lead player in Mark Harmon, playing Agent Gibbs. He's been around as a leading man since the early 1980s and is a reasonably good actor. The subject matter is at once familiar and slightly exotic. It's basically a cop show, but in this case the cops work for the Navy and get involved in story lines that go beyond ordinary cop stuff. The real NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigation Service has responsibilities that include but aren't limited to investigating crimes, providing security for naval instalations and personel and both counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism. With this as base material, there are a lot of directions that the show can go in.

The supporting cast of any show is important. As is frequently the case in a show produced by Bellisario, the supporting cast of NCIS is full of quirky characters. The main supporting characters are the investigators who work with Gibbs: Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), Kate Todd (Sasha Alexander), and Tim McGee (Sean Murray). While each is a solid investigator they byplay between them injects a cetain amount of humour into the episodes. Rounding out the main cast are Coroner Donald "Ducky" Mallard and forensic scientist Abby Sciuto. If anything these characters are walking quirks. Ducky, played by David McCallum, is the only person to use Gibbs' middle name, Jethro. (Bellisario seems to have a thing about the name Jethro; on JAG Admiral A.J. Chegwidden was Albert Jethro, while Gibbs is Leroy Jethro.) Everyone else calls him "Boss" or "Gibbs". As for Abby, played by Pauly Perrette, what can one say about a forensic investigator who is also a Goth Chick with a caffiene addiction who sleeps in a coffin and has a spider web tatto on her neck. The show is worth watching just to see her. (I admit it, she's my favourite character in the show.)

Finally there's the writing. It's probably never going to win an Emmy, but the storylines have their own sort of richness and the writers know the regular characters they're writing about. Inevitably the plots have subte twists that are difficult to aniticpate. Just occassionally they hit a home run. The episode "Call of Silence" starring Charles Durning is a touching portrait of an elderly man mixed with an old and perplexing mystery. Charles Durning turns in a great performance as the elderly Medal of Honour winner which should receive an Emmy nomination but probably won't.

NCIS is one of those shows is one of those shows that is just going to tick along in it's own quiet way, charming the people who watch it, while it's popularity will continue to mystify those who don't. If you give it the time - and it doesn't necessarily take a long time - you can get hooked by it's charm.

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