When it was theorized to Mark Harmon last year that less than 5 percent of the A.V. Club readership would admit to watching NCIS, he didn't hesitate for a second before replying, "If it’s possible for a No. 1 show to be still be under the radar, then we’re still under the radar." When asked if it bothered him that some people don't watch the series because they don't deem it sufficiently hip, he shrugged and said, "An opinion's an opinion. I mean, people are watching...whether it’s hip or not hip."
Far be it from me to argue with Harmon when the facts are on his side: with tonight's episode, "Life Before His Eyes," NCIS celebrated its 200th episode, and it's still the #1 drama on television. Whether you're a dedicated viewer or someone who holds the series up as proof that network TV sucks, it's still going strong...which would probably really rankle the brass at NBC if anyone in network television had a memory that lasted for more than a sweeps period at a time. They don't, of course. And even if they did, network TV turnover is so rapid-fire nowadays that there's probably not even anyone left at NBC who remembers how, way back in 1995, they premiered a little series called JAG, only to kick it to the curb after a single season. And if they don't remember that, then they probably don't realize that CBS promptly rescued the series from oblivion, proceeding to keep it riding high in the ratings for nine more seasons, and, most humiliating of all, successfully nurtured a spinoff series about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service into one of the most successful television properties of all time.
Funny how one decision can so dramatically impact your future fortunes, isn't it?
Which brings us back to the 200th episode of NCIS, in which the producers of the show reward the diehard fans by forcing Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs to play This Is Your Life...whether he wants to or not.
Here's a helpful hint for TV characters: whenever you hear Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" playing, for God's sake, watch your back. If only we could have gotten this information to Gibbs before he stopped at his favorite diner to grab a cup of joe. Sure, it finally answered the 200-episode-long mystery of where he's been getting his morning coffee from for the past nine seasons, but it also led to a bullet being fired in his general direction before the opening credits had even begun to roll.
Was he hit? Uh, well, yes, eventually, but it's kind of hard to explain, really. Let's just say that the possibility exists that he might have been shot, even killed, by the hooded young gentleman who walked into the diner packing heat. When the gun fires, however, the bullet stops in mid-air on its way to make impact with Gibbs, at which point the late Mike Franks, played by still-among-us Muse Watson, flicks the bullet out of the air, chastises Gibbs for hesitating (“You should've shot him”), then reveals that he's here to give him a chance to see both what he's accomplished in his career and what might or might not have happened if he hadn't made certain decisions over the years.
This is where the fun begins, particularly if you're a longtime fan of the show, as Gibbs realizes that the other patrons of the diner look strikingly familiar. Some of the folks who turn up have nothing to say and don't do much more than float by and offer a smile or a harsh glance, but we saw a blend of some of the most loved and loathed characters in the series' history, many of whom died several seasons ago. (She wasn't in the credits, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Lauren Holly turn up even fleetingly.) As Franks plays It's A Wonderful Life with Gibbs and lets him see how certainly events in his life would've gone down if he'd made different decisions, we also get to enjoy a few moments which have almost certainly, if incidentally, been ripped from the pages of NCIS fan fiction, such as Abby and Tim ending up as a couple, or, in a world where Gibbs spotted sniper Ari Haswari before he could get off his kill shot, DiNozzo marrying and having a child with Caitlin Todd. (Another pleasant surprise, that one, seeing Sasha Alexander reprise her role for the first time since taking a bullet to the forehead at the end of Season 2.)
Gibbs also has emotionally revelatory moments with his mother, who turns up as one of the waitresses at the diner and ends up providing him with the sense of maternal pride that he never received from her before she died, and he considers what would've happened if he hadn't fallen back on his sniper training to kill Pedro Hernandes. (Suffice it to say that it isn't pretty.) The most harsh encounter, however, has to have been between Gibbs and his wife and daughter, whose deaths have driven him throughout the entire run of NCIS. It absolutely rings true when Gibbs suggests that he'd give up everything that's happened in his life since their death if he could bring them back ("But I'd have my girls!"), but he's forced to consider the fact that his entire career in NCIS would likely never have happened if they hadn't been killed and, even worse, he probably would've gotten killed himself if he hadn't left combat behind and returned to the States to join the Naval Investigative Service.
The entire episode revolves around a case which, not entirely surprisingly, ties into the opening scene in such a way that, in the end, Gibbs is able to survive the attack by the gunman and go on living his life. Really, though, "Life Before His Eyes" is just an excuse to flash back through 200 episodes of NCIS, bring on as many all-time favorite characters as time, budget, and script would allow, and give the fans a bit of payback for their dedication over the years. If you weren't a fan of the show going in, it probably wouldn't mean a heck of a lot to you. But as someone who - yes, I admit it - owns every single season of the series on DVD and has seen countless characters come and go over the years, I can confirm that, hip or not hip, it was still a heck of a lot of fun to watch.