With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Finding success in the entertainment world is so hit-or-miss that the only way to survive is to understand that mistakes are an integral part of the game. Once in a while, though, those mistakes turn out to be so big that they sow a sense of regret that never goes away: Decca Records decided that Brian Poole And The Tremeloes had more potential than The Beatles, 140 publishers supposedly rejected Chicken Soup For The Soul, and so on. It seems very likely that NBC still feels that gnawing sense of annoyance that it cancelled JAG after a single season.
Not so much because JAG was subsequently saved from oblivion by CBS and went on to run for nine more seasons—although that had to hurt, too—but because in JAG’s eighth season, the military-themed legal drama spawned a military-themed crime procedural which, 11 seasons into its own run, still pulls in 19 million viewers every week. That series is called NCIS, and it’s still one of the biggest shows on TV.
Created by Donald Bellisario (who also created Magnum, P.I. and Quantum Leap) and Don McGill, NCIS made its debut on September 23, 2003, earning neither instant ratings success nor heaping helpings of critical acclaim. Heck, it wasn’t even called NCIS yet. After spending pilot season under the name Navy CIS, presumably due to the then-legitimate concern that non-Navy personnel would have no idea what the acronym “NCIS” meant, CBS ultimately launched the series under the redundant title Navy NCIS, no doubt annoying the relatively small percentage of the viewing public that did know what the initials stood for. (It certainly annoyed Bellisario.) Thankfully, the “Navy” in the name was dropped when NCIS returned for its second season, which is also when things really started to fall into place for the series, both creatively and with the chemistry of its cast.
For its first year, NCIS might as well have been called That Show With That Guy Who Used To Be In That Other Thing, given the way it was filled with numerous familiar faces but no true matinee names. Mark Harmon, who’d been a big-screen leading man in the ’80s with films like Summer School and The Presidio and was just coming off an Emmy nomination for his four-episode arc on The West Wing, was seen as more of an ensemble player than a series headliner. Similarly, David McCallum was, even almost four decades after the fact, still best known for his work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. That credit made for a nice one-off joke in an early episode, but his mere presence wasn’t going to bring big ratings. Nor were the back catalogs of the other cast members, which included such relatively short-lived series as Dark Angel (Michael Weatherly), Time Of Your Life (Pauley Perrette), and Presidio Med (Sasha Alexander), enough to send scores of viewers in search of the new procedural. Still, the series managed to maintain a position in the Nielsen Top 30 in its first year, which was enough to earn it a sophomore season.
Looking back, there’s considerable merit to the idea that losing the “Navy” inspired NCIS to kick things up a notch. The original reason the word was tacked onto the title was because CBS was interested in making sure that viewers knew the series was tied to JAG. Bellisario, however, was downright desperate to clarify to anyone who would listen that the two series had precious little in common, and when chatting with TV Guide Online in the spring of 2004, he didn’t hesitate to underline the point. “It's not remotely like JAG,” he assured them. “I hope to God it runs as long as JAG, but it's a completely different show! It does not look, feel, taste or smell like JAG. That’s why, next season, we're dropping Navy off the title. It’s just going to be NCIS.”
With the first season having successfully introduced Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Harmon) and his team—Agents Tony DiNozzo (Weatherly) and Kate Todd (Alexander), forensic specialist Abby Sciuto (Perrette), and chief medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (McCallum)—NCIS began the process of forging its own path by adding a new series regular: Agent Tim McGee (Sean Murray), who, after helping out on several cases during the first season, was invited by Gibbs to join his team at the end of the second-season premiere. McGee’s presence added a new element to the group chemistry, a bit of light to counter the darkness of the crimes, with McGee’s “probie” status causing him to shift between confidence and nervousness around Gibbs while earning him a constant barrage of teasing and hazing from DiNozzo. The second season also provided the show’s creative team with the opportunity to begin fleshing out the backstories of the characters, including a look into one of Ducky’s past cases (“The Meat Puzzle”), but the final episode of the season offered a major turning point for the series, not to mention a moment that is arguably the single most shocking moment in the history of NCIS: Kate’s death at the hands of Hamas terrorist Ari Haswari.
Not that anyone was necessarily rooting for Sasha Alexander to leave the show—she opted to depart of her own volition, having discovered that the grind of a weekly series was rougher than she’d anticipated—but Kate’s demise ultimately proved to be NCIS’ gain: Her spot was filled by Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), a liaison officer between NCIS and the Israeli national intelligence agency, Mossad. Suddenly, the series had an outsider in its midst, a bit of political charge, and a healthy dose of sexual tension, thanks to the chemistry between Ziva and DiNozzo. Beyond that, the team’s shared grief over Kate’s murder helped further solidify the bond between the characters. In addition to Ziva, another new character was introduced: Agency Director Jenny Shepard (Lauren Holly), who’s revealed to have a history with Gibbs that’s more than just professional.
For the next few seasons, NCIS didn’t add anyone new to its cast, instead preferring to expand on the stories of the characters it already had in its arsenal. In the process, the series may not have gained a significant number of new viewers at the time, but when the USA Network picked up reruns of the show in 2007, boy, did it pay off in a big way: Viewers spent the summer of 2008 playing catch-up with the series, and when it came back for its sixth season, it jumped into the Nielsen Top 5 for the first time, where it has held residence ever since.
As a mystery-of-the-week procedural, NCIS is easy for TV elitists to bash as hour-long comfort food that goes down easily but doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Viewers who’ve invested in the show for the long haul, however, would be standing on very solid ground to claim otherwise. Over the course of 11 seasons, the evolution of the characters and the expansion of their personal and professional lives is undeniable, but the series also delivers lengthy plot arcs, often picking up on storylines from past seasons and bringing them back to the forefront. Yet it still regularly delivers stand-alone episodes that entertain viewers without requiring any knowledge of past events. If your stock line is some approximation of the phrase, “I don’t watch NCIS, but my [FAMILY MEMBER OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER] does,” then here are 10 episodes to help you ease into an appreciation of the series.
“See No Evil” (season two, episode one): At the risk of creating the false impression that the entire first season of NCIS is worth skipping, the premiere of the series’ sophomore season is actually a better entry point for viewers interested in investigating the series as a whole. “See No Evil” is a key installment in defining the show’s ensemble for the long haul, as it features McGee, who was called up from the Norfolk Naval Base to assist Gibbs’ team with several cases during the first season, earning a promotion and getting word that he’s being officially transferred to NCIS HQ. Although it’s pleasant enough to watch the chemistry build between the characters in McGee’s initial appearances, “See No Evil” provides the perfect opportunity to see all the key elements of the series being put into their proper place for the first time.
“Call Of Silence” (season two, episode seven): As NCIS has grown in popularity, so has the list of high-profile guest stars who’ve appeared on the series. But unlike most of those instances, Charles Durning’s one-off appearance wasn’t done as a stunt for Sweeps Week, nor did his character have any personal ties to anyone on the team. This emotionally charged hour set a guest-star gold standard for the series, but its storyline—about a World War II vet (Durning) who arrives at the NCIS offices to confess to having killed one of his fellow soldiers during the Battle Of Iwo Jima—serves as a tribute to “The Greatest Generation” while also revealing the painful price of war. NCIS has always spent more time focusing on characterization and action than political statements, but this confirmed that the series could, when it wanted to, deliver one that packed a punch.
“Twilight” (season two, episode 23): As noted, the second season of NCIS was where the series made a strong effort to step out of JAG’s shadow, but the true clarion call arrived in the form of a bullet, one delivered straight into the center of Kate Todd’s forehead in the final moments of the season-two finale. It was a moment that seemed to come out of nowhere, happening on the heels of a sigh of relief, and it did for NCIS what “The Best Of Both Worlds, Pt. 1” did for Star Trek: The Next Generation, eliciting screams and obscenities from the show’s fans while guaranteeing that they’d be counting the days until the next season.
“Twilight” cemented the fact that series wasn’t afraid to take its time setting up and unfurling storylines, with Kate’s assassin, Ari Haswari, having been introduced in the previous season but remaining MIA after the first season finale, “Reveille.” It served to create numerous new storylines as well, with memories of Kate and her murder haunting the characters and continuing to reverberate through the series long after her death.
“Under Covers” (season three, episode eight): The introduction of Ziva David to NCIS was one that rankled some viewers, partially because she was such an unknown element, but mostly because she wasn’t Kate. While not exactly a warm and cuddly character in her first few episodes, Ziva had a definite spunkiness that began to emerge with prolonged exposure to her new co-workers. “Under Covers” was the first time viewers saw that side of her on full display, thanks to an assignment that necessitated that she and DiNozzo pose as a pair of married assassins. Not only did the episode provide Ziva with an opportunity to charm viewers who’d been on the fence about her character, but the goings-on between the sheets—while simulated in order to keep up appearances in case their hotel room had been bugged—kicked off a “will they or won’t they?” between Ziva and DiNozzo that lasted until her departure at the beginning of season 11.
“Hiatus, Parts 1 & 2” (season three, episodes 23 & 24): Gibbs spent the majority of the first three seasons as the Gary Cooper of the NCIS team, preferring action to words whenever possible and divulging only as much personal information as absolutely necessary. In the two-part finale of season three, however, viewers finally got a few key pieces of the puzzling past of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. After being caught in a bomb explosion, Gibbs fell into a coma, during which viewers were treated to flashbacks of his earlier years, the most revelatory of which showed that his first wife, Shannon, and his daughter, Kelly, had been killed in a car crash caused by a sniper.
Not only was the information a surprise to viewers, but, perhaps even more unexpectedly, Gibbs had also kept the existence of Shannon and Kelly from Ducky and Director Shepard, the two characters who’d shared the most history with Gibbs. An even bigger surprise was in store at the end of “Hiatus, Pt. 1,” however, with Gibbs awakening from his coma with amnesia.
As a result, the second part of “Hiatus” proved almost as informative, introducing Gibbs’s heretofore-unmentioned NCIS mentor and former partner, Mike Franks, who was called out of retirement to help Gibbs regain his lost memories. With Gibbs temporarily out of commission, the events of “Hiatus” forced DiNozzo to take control of the team, giving him the opportunity to prove that, despite his often flippant attitude on the job, he possesses the temperament to take command when the situation demands it.
“Judgment Day, Part 2” (season five, episode 19): The first part of the season-five finale concluded with Jenny Shepard being killed in a gunfight, a moment with lasting implications on the series, not least of which is the resulting promotion of Leon Vance to director of NCIS. As Tony and Ziva deal with the realization that Jenny might still be alive were it not for their actions, Gibbs sets off to exact revenge, displaying a side of himself that only a few unfortunate individuals had ever experienced. As one might expect, there’s a great deal of grief expressed during the proceedings, along with many repercussions for the team: By the end of the episode, McGee and DiNozzo have both been reassigned, Ziva is on her way back to Israel, and Vance is handing Gibbs the personnel files for his new team. Sure, season six kicks off with the obligatory “getting the band back together” story, but this is a classic cliffhanger and it’s delivered well.
“Heartland” (season six, episode four): If “Hiatus” served to explain some of the sadness behind Gibbs’ eyes, then “Heartland” provided the origins of the occasional twinkle by finally introducing viewers to his father, Jackson, played by former Waltons patriarch Ralph Waite. When a case takes Gibbs back to his hometown for the first time in decades, the long silence between father and son is finally broken, with Gibbs letting his inner teenager run free for a brief moment when his father unveils the sports car he’s refurbished and had waiting for him in the garage. While there are certainly serious moments throughout the episode, there’s a lot of lightness, much of it derived from the audience sharing the excitement of Gibbs’ team that they’ve finally found out something about the boss’ origins.
“Truth Or Consequences” (season seven, episode one): For all the media attention that Cote de Pablo’s departure from NCIS received, something often glossed over in the coverage was the fact that the series had already gone through the process of replacing Ziva a few seasons earlier. At the end of season six, Ziva was taken hostage by an Islamic terrorist, held captive, and tortured. While a search-and-rescue effort proved successful, the overall effects of the experience took several episodes to play out. “Truth Or Consequences” is a psychologically harrowing hour of television all by itself, however, with DiNozzo suffering through a brutal interrogation in Somalia, refusing to divulge any information, and hanging tough until Gibbs arrives to commit an act of unadulterated badassery.
“Shiva” (season 10, episode 12): As the highest-rated episode in the history of NCIS, more than 22 million viewers already know what went on in “Shiva,” which detailed the aftermath of the murders of Eli David, Ziva’s father, and Director Vance’s wife, Jackie. Although the desire to exact revenge on those responsible extends throughout the rest of the season, “Shiva” delves into the emotional complexities of Vance and Ziva suddenly and unexpectedly losing their loved ones. For the first time, Vance and Gibbs are finally on the same page, with Vance admitting that, for better or worse, he now has a frame of reference to what Gibbs went through when he lost his wife and daughter. The episode also serves as the beginning of the end for Ziva on the series, with the death of her father sending her on a path that ultimately leads her to leave NCIS for good.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Dead Man Talking” (season one, episode 19); “SWAK” (season two, episode 22); “Bloodbath” (season three, episode 21); “Grace Period” (season four, episode 19”); “Requiem” (season five, episode seven); “Flesh And Blood” (season seven, episode 12); “A Man Walks Into A Bar” (season eight, episode 14); “Devil’s Triangle” (season nine, episode seven); “Squall” (season 10, episode 19); “Past, Present, Future” (season 11, episode 2)
Availability: The first 10 seasons of NCIS are available on DVD, as well as for digital purchase on iTunes and Amazon, and the three most recent episodes of season 11 available for viewing on CBS.com.
In two weeks: Just sit right back as Brandon Nowalk tells a tale about the 10 must-see episodes of Gilligan’s Island.