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NCIS - A Blueprint For TV Success?

Updated on December 6, 2012

Major Cliffhanger? Is That A New Character?

As television series go, NCIS has been a wild success story, running to 9 seasons - the last one of which recently ended in a major cliffhanger - and showing no sign of slowing down, with spin offs taking the franchise in new directions.

Eventually, of course, all possible character arcs will be exhausted, the series will jump the shark, audience figures will fall, and television will move on. It happens to every TV series.

But if we analyse NCIS, will we uncover the reasons behind its success? Is there a blueprint for TV hit shows that simply cannot fail? Or does luck play a part in the process?

Mark Harmon. Some Time Ago.

Hell, I'm straight and I think he's gorgeous.
Hell, I'm straight and I think he's gorgeous. | Source

NCIS cast members

Mark Harmon
Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs

Michael Weatherly
Special Agent Tony DiNozzo

Pauley Perrette
Forensics Specialist Abby Sciuto

David McCallum
Chief M.E. Ducky Mallard

Sean Murray
Special Agent Tim McGee

Cote di Pablo
Ziva David

Taken all together, an unfeasibly attractive bunch of people - which doesn't hurt ratings. But a TV show can't get far on looks alone.

The premise of the show - a federal agency which is barely known outside its own headquarters, and which constantly loses airtime to the FBI and other, more well known agencies, yet nonetheless plays a vital role in fighting crime and securing the national interests - was outlined in the feature length first edition, 'Yankee White', first aired in 2003. This had Steve Bridges, a convincing George Bush double, at the centre of an assassination attempt aboard AirForce One.

NCIS - Behind The Scenes

NCIS Episode Guide

For the hardened NCIS fan - and boy, are you out there - there's an online resource which details the plot of every episode from every season. You can find it right here. The link to the show's fan wiki is also in the links section below.

Cote de Pablo

She plays her cards right, I'm hers. Though what she'd want with a middle aged sarcastic bald guy, I don't know.
She plays her cards right, I'm hers. Though what she'd want with a middle aged sarcastic bald guy, I don't know. | Source

NCIS Story Threads. Which Sometimes Get Cut Short.

Since that first episode, characters have come and gone, such as Special Agent Caitlin Todd, played by Sasha Alexander, shot by the terrorist half brother of Ziva. Or Director Jenny Shepard, played by Lauren Holly, killed in a shoot out with foreign agents. The scriptwriters and producers haven't shied away from losing a character if their death serves the story. It probably makes script read-throughs a little bit nerve wracking for all the cast, given that it's not just minor characters who can get the chop.

One of the main probems facing scriptwriters is finding story threads to follow, and one of the ways they've tackled this with NCIS is by inventing backstories for the main characters and working out the consequences.

Michael Weatherly

Yes he's cute. But how does he do that with his arm?
Yes he's cute. But how does he do that with his arm? | Source

Gibbs's Backstory.

Thus we eventually discovered that Jethro is an ex marine sniper whose wife and daughter were murdered by a Mexican drug lord, an act for which he took revenge by killing the man. His loss plays into his relationship with Abby, whom he almost treats as a favoured daughter rather than an underling.

It also turns out he had a romantic history and working relationship with Director Jenny Shephard, hinted at in flashbacks of field operations in Europe, on the trail of 'La Grenouille'.

And as a 'newbie', he too suffered the daily humiliations of being the low man on the totem pole, when he answered directly to his old boss, Mike Franks, played by Muse Watson, the grizzled veteran who made occasional returns to the series from his hideaway on a Mexican beach. Before he got shot, anyway.

NCIS funniest moments

Keeping NCIS Script Options Open.

While there are risks attached to expanding the audience's knowledge of the characters and their history this way, it does enable the writers to keep coming up with storylines that aren't just a rehash of previous episodes. The risks are that when they choose a direction to go in, they're locked into it, with all of its consequences. If they get too detailed too fast, they lose a lot of options as regards the way a story can go.

As an example - Gibbs, ex marine sniper, Gulf war vet, widower and special ops operative, has had a busy and interesting life. Add one more secret from his past and it just might seem a little too busy. The same goes for all the characters. There are natural limits to how interesting and crowded a character's backstory can be, and this also limits the directions the writers can take with storylines, if they are to maintain credibility.

The Comfort Zone Ecosystem Of A Popular TV Show.

Another risk involved is that an unexpected backstory element can damage the fragile ecosystem of the characters. We come to love a particular character because we learn to predict how they will react and behave in various circumstances. Mess with this too much, and we don't know where we are. A TV audience is a fickle thing. They want new stories and surprises every week - but not too new, and not too surprising. Any popular television series works inside a comfort zone, and leaves it at its peril.

Characters can have an arc, and change in line with that - but oh so slowly, and not without reverting to type when it suits the demands of the scene. Where would we be if Abby started making sense and dressing like an adult? Actually, that's a good way for a script to start out, provided there's a story attached to the change that explains everything in the end. Characters acting out of character makes for story tension and keep the interest going. Just one of the ploys that a scriptwriter can use to add a new twist to a familiar ingredient, and keep the show from getting stale.

The Cast of NCIS Before They Were Stars - by Snakkle

Pauley Perrette

Try the decaff.
Try the decaff. | Source

NCIS - Secrets Of Success

So what is the big secret behind the success of this long running TV series? At a time when the USA is waging costly wars overseas, and undergoing frightening changes at home, all of which involve dubious moral choices and uncomfortable questions about the legality of government actions, NCIS offers a simple vision of good versus evil. It shows a world where law enforcement is not something ordinary people have to fear, and where justice is eventually done, no matter how clever the criminal.

In short, NCIS offers a reassuring fiction about the way we'd like the world to be. Any qualms we have about the way the real world is going are put aside for fifty minutes while attractive and likeable characters whose moral code we can unequivocally approve of use their considerable skills to solve heinous crimes and prevent terrorist outrages. While cracking jokes. What's not to like?

How long will NCIS last? As long as the good scripts keep coming, and the actors enjoy the challenge of making every new show as good, or better, than the one that preceded it.

Mark Harmon and NCIS celebrating their 200th episode


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  • bean3185296328795 profile image

    Melody 5 years ago

    Nice hub. I love this show :)