In an interview promoting the two-hour season finale of NCIS: LA, the show’s executive producer, Shane Brennan, left no doubt that, when it comes to explosions, he’s a size freak. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he told Entertainment Weekly, describing the big fireball that goes off in the finale’s second half, “and that explosion—in the world of blowing things up—is a triple A+. And that explosion, that hasn’t been enhanced with any computer graphics at all, and when you see it on the air we have not touched it.” It’s nice that Pop loves his work, but does someone as smart as Brennan—the driving force behind two of CBS’ biggest hit procedurals, the other one being the other show with NCIS in its title—really think he has to talk like one of the hosts of Farm Film Celebrity Blow-Up to get the idiots at home to watch his show? In the interview, Brennan, like the commercials CBS has been running for the finale, also seemed to promise that if we tuned in, we’d get to see a major character or two get knocked off. Anybody remember the time DC put the continued existence of Robin to a vote? Didn’t everybody think that was kind of tacky? And the regular characters on NCIS: LA are all pretty likable. By comparison, Jason Todd, as Lenny Bruce once said of the victim in the Leopold and Loeb case, was a snotty kid anyway.
Having found this sort of promotional tactic a bit unseemly, how hypocritical is it of me that I was kind of pissed off that no regulars were harmed in the making of these two hours of television? The episode does wrack up an impressive body count, but the good guys who fall are recurring characters, none of whom have been aboard for more than a handful of episodes; one of them hasn’t been around since the first season. Both Brennan and the commercials went out of their way to suggest that we might see the last of L L Cool J’s Sam Hanna. I don’t know that anybody, anywhere, was buying this. But it doesn’t make the death tease included in the show itself—the unconscionably delayed “revelation” that Sam was all right after the explosion—any less insulting. The fact that two of the barely glimpsed bit players who got killed off in the course of the episode happened to be agents Mike Renko and Lauren Hunter could only mean something special to fans who are way too devoted to seriously contemplating every nook and cranny of the NCIS: LA “mythology.” At its core, this was a mythology episode, and like a lot of such episodes, it didn’t really showcase the actual strengths of the series attached to the mythology.
Like its progenitor, NCIS: LA tends to be at its most entertaining when it’s coasting on the charm of its people. It’s unlikely that any of the actors could carry a show by themselves, except for Linda Hunt, who has the ability to say lines that make no sense whatsoever in a way that temporarily convinces you that they contain all the wisdom of the ages, crossed with the music of the spheres. But together, they have the right chemistry to form a congress of likable lightweights, with the lightest weight of them all, Chris O’Donnell, treated respectfully as the central figure with the mysterious troubled past and unplumbable depths, in recognition of the fact that, before moving to series TV, he too once hung out with Batman. The show also generally delivers one startlingly effective violent scene or image to justify its generic designation as a crime drama. (The opening credits feature what can only be called an action shot of Linda Hunt sniffing her cup of tea.) It’s at its best when it can combine the action with the actors’ ability to be loose and funny together. (One recent episode managed to ring some fresh changes with that hoary plot about the two agents who have an unannounced sexual attraction to each other going undercover as a married couple.)
The finale isn’t the show at its best so much as the show at its loudest and pushiest, as if it were a fun little B movie that wants to be the fourth entry in an action-movie franchise that’s directed by Richard Donner or Brett Ratner. This is a shame, because it starts out really well, with a set-up involving a family of gun dealers and a chase scene that ends in a storm drain area, with a huge lug shooting a man and then being picked off himself by a sniper. (The setting immediately recalls John Boorman’s Point Blank, though it isn’t clear how deliberate this was until it was revealed, a few minutes later, that the family’s business is called Point Blank Gun Range. This isn’t the kind of touch one expects to see in the work of someone who uses his interviews to call attention to how big his fireballs are.)
For the first half hour or so, I was able to have a pretty good time watching one character after another get taken out in mid-sentence by the bullet of someone offscreen who has very good aim. Things start to curdle with the return of Christopher Lambert as the international super-killer the Chameleon—not so much because Lambert himself is such a problem (though I wouldn’t go so far as to call him an asset) as because there’s something about him that just brings out the self-righteous Mister Pouty-face in O’Donnell’s G. Callen. Lambert has been running around shooting people in the mouth, because in his previous encounter with Callan, he was left with a bullet wound and a scar on his mouth to help him remember the occasion. He has a U.S. agent in his possession, and may be cutting a deal with the Iranian government to sell them the identity of another agent who’s in their midst. But what troubles Callan the most, the part that he just cannot get past, is that Lambert’s recent victims include two people Callan hung out on the show with several months back. The biggest unintentional laugh comes when Miguel Ferrer’s NCIS Assistant Director tries to talk reasonably with Callan about meeting Lambert’s conditions for working with them; without his cooperation, Ferrer says, events might result in a war in the Middle East. Firmly establishing where his priorities lie, Callan yells, “There will always be another war in the Middle East!”
The episode ends with a cliffhanger of a sort that’s already become a cliche: the question we’re meant to have gnawing at us all summer long is, how much trouble will our hero be in for serving as judge, jury, and executioner? But Chris O’Donnell shouldn’t be doling out vigilante justice; he’s so smooth and featureless that it’s like seeing the Pillsbury Doughboy play Jacobean drama. And the people around him shouldn’t have to worry about his state of mind; it slows down the wisecracks. As for Linda Hunt, she can do whatever the hell she wants. Not that I especially want to tune in and see her talking with dead people. But if anybody’s going to do it...