NCIS - "Broken Arrow"

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray looks at TV's top scripted drama, NCIS. Next week, Zack Handlen will peek in on NBC's number one rated program, The Biggest Loser.) 

I have a confession to make: Of all the network shows that bombed out early this fall, I think I’ll miss The Whole Truth the most. (Yes, even more than Lone Star.) I can make no claims for The Whole Truth as a great show, or even a very good one. But I like Maura Tierney and Rob Morrow, I like legal dramas, and I liked the gimmick of showing both sides of the case and then revealing the truth at the end. It was never a watch-right-away show for me, but it hit the spot first thing in the morning while I was catching up on RSS feeds, or as something to watch while making and eating lunch.

What does The Whole Truth have to do with NCIS? Only that both shows belong to that larger family of television known as The Procedural, where cops or lawyers or doctors or private eyes or forensic scientists or soldiers or spies or journalists or insurance investigators go through the step-by-step processes of their jobs in order to find the answer to a question. Networks and Hollywood studios love procedurals, because they draw a steady audience and hold up well in repeats. (With little to no ongoing story to follow, viewers can drop in any time without feeling lost.) But television critics tend to be either hostile or indifferent to them, because they eat up airtime that could be going to more innovative shows, and because they rarely reward the kind of close analysis that we like to engage in on a week-to-week basis. About the best we can find to say about most procedurals is, “Well, that was a neat case.”

Me, I like procedurals—at least in theory. For one, I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the golden age of the TV mystery/adventure show. Even now, I like to end my day by watching a episode of The Rockford Files or McMillan & Wife or something similar on my iPad (via Netflix’s watch instantly feature), to ease out of my own troubles and ease into a tidy little puzzle-play, populated by likable characters, from a distant-yet-familiar world. Also, I’m a firm believer that TV critics should celebrate the virtues inherent in the medium. It’s okay to want television to be more like novels or moviesor plays—I think TV can approximate all of those at times—but the small screens, the regimented time-slots, and the commercial concerns of the medium as it’s developed over the past century all lend themselves naturally to episodic storytelling. Ditto TV’s ubiquitous presence, which favors scenarios like the ones I listed above, where people watch shows while they’re drifting off to sleep or grabbing a bite or killing time. I’m an unashamed TV junkie, and if I’m home by myself, I see nothing wrong with switching on the set just to keep me company. So I’m fine with networks programming shows that don’t require me to pay close attention. I treasure them, really.

And yet I’ve never had much interest in CBS’ stable of technocratic procedurals: the CSI/NCIS-plex. I’ve seen episodes here and there and have even enjoyed them. But something about the style of those shows, and the way they deal with their characters … well, I’ve filed them away in the “I’m sure they’re fine, but they’re not for me” box.

Taking another look at NCIS tonight, I can’t say that my mind’s been changed. I appreciate the tone of the show, which is halfway between no-nonsense soldiers-at-work and breezy, buddy-cop adventure. It’s very much in the style of co-creator Don Bellisario, who produced Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap, Tales Of The Gold Monkey, and lots of other shows about the camaraderie among men and women of action. I also like that NCIS—or at least this episode of NCIS—is as interested in the characters as it is in their case. The major hoopla in “Broken Arrow” has to with the arrival of Senior Field Agent Tony DiNozzo’s father, a slick-talking freeloader played by Robert Wagner. He embarrasses his son, hits on agent Ziva David, and worries the team’s agent-in-charge Leroy Gibbs. But he also helps them solve their big murder, and the episode wraps up the case well enough before the end that the two DiNozzos can have a father-son heart-to-heart. (No pun intended, Wagner fans.)

The problem is that there’s nothing all that special about the DiNozzos’ family quarrels or in forensic specialist Pauley Perrette’s pining for a father-figure or in Medical Examiner “Ducky” Mallard’s romanticizing of D.C. landmarks and the Navy’s “esprits de corps.” These are agreeable little quirks, and when you assemble enough characters with those quirks, you get an agreeable little environment for our heroes to ply their trade. (“Broken Arrow” even added one of my favorite comic actors, Samm Levine, playing the stressed-out keeper of NCIS’ finances. This is apparently his first appearance on the show, and he was kind of wasted in the episode, but it was sure nice to see him.)

I can’t say too much about the show’s star, Mark Harmon, since he’s not a major factor in this episode. He’s more a benign, benevolent presence, muttering his assent for what his team does. And though the dialogue is snappy, it’s mainly functional, moving the plot along between the occasional quip. (Sample quips: “I feel like I’m in a James Bond movie directed by Fellini.” and “Mmmm … Nutter Butter!” Though that latter one may have been product-placement.)

As for the case, it’s not exactly Ellery Queen. A man is killed and left in a dumpster at the Naval Academy; it comes out that he’s friends with a Vice-Admiral and the employee of a reclusive billionaire, who has also employed the senior DiNozzo from time to time. The team digs in and discovers unusual levels of radiation on the corpse, and following the leads, they learn that the dead man was pursuing a long-missing plane that had been carrying an H-bomb. Hence the title of the episode.

Some of the NCIS trappings add intrigue. The team clashes a little with the Vice-Admiral (played by Bruce Boxleitner), who has the power to elude their inquiries (to a point) thanks to the normal chain-of-command. Ziva gets made during an undercover op because one of the bad guys recognizes her from her days as a Mossad agent. Those little touches add verisimilitude, and the stylistic touch of teasing the end of each act-break with a flash-frame at the start—while weird—does create an anticipatory rhythm to the show. When we see a scene similar to what we saw in the flash-frame, we know it’s almost time for a commercial, which means we know the action is about to come to a head.

So yes, I can see why NCIS is popular. It’s got enough personality in the way it looks and the way it’s written so that a viewer could get invested in these people and the place where they work. But I can also see why NCIS isn’t inspiring critics to break it down each week in blog form. Those elements of personality I mention are off-the-rack, not instilled with much that’s new enough to elicit much remark.

Again though … my opinion is based on this episode. If I were a regular watcher, I might spot more nuances. But I don’t think I’ll become a regular watcher, mainly because the show isn’t quite to my taste. I do like procedurals, and I recognize that NCIS is a solid one, probably capable of delivering an above-average episode from time to time. But I’m more a grubby-PI-who-plays-by-his-or-her-own-rules-in-a-town-filled-with-squalor-and-opulence kind of guy. And NCIS is a crisply-dressed-pros-huddled-over-keyboards-while-giant-screens-display-the-information-they-need kind of show. As something to watch while checking e-mail, it’s too much like work.