NCIS: The Early Seasons

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Never heard of it.  However, after eighteen seasons, everyone knows what it is. In television time, few scripted series last as many seasons.

I’m no expert on the NCIS franchise, but I watched the first six seasons, which may not be the best, but they are strong and formative, and carry the series through the first several cast changes.

Typically, the first season of shows can be rough as the characters work into their roles, the episodes can be uneven, music sometimes is replaced, and the visual style can undergo changes. Producers and writers come and go. Even cast members can be changed out.

NCIS hit the ground in solid shape.  It was a spin-off of JAG, so it was nurtured by seasoned producers and given a carefully planned launch.  If you are series fan, you know all of this, and more.  Created by Donald P. Bellisario (JAG, Magnum, P.I., Quantum Leap) and Don McGill (JAG, Numbers, Bull).

As successful as JAG was, NCIS developed a much broader audience. JAG was a military show, which there is nothing wrong with that, but NCIS is halfway between a civilian show and a military show.  I believe this broadened perspective embraced more demographics and a wider fanbase. Smart move.

In the first show of NCIS, there was Gibbs, DiNozzo, Ducky and Abby.  Kate Todd was in the Secret Service before joining NCIS.  McGee was a reoccurring character in the beginning, working out of the Norfolk field office, before joining the team.  The director of NCIS was Thomas Morrow until the end of season two, he was not seen in every episode.

During season one, McGee makes several appearances.  He is by-the-book as a probationer, a computer expert, a bit naïve and falls under the supervision of DiNozzo.  Abby takes a shine to McGee, who matches her technical proficiency, but otherwise is as different as night and day.

Kate and DiNozzo begin a brother-sister competitiveness of wisecracks and teasing.  If there is suppose to be an attraction between them, it never really develops, but there is an underlying friendship.

Season two. At the end of season two, Kate is killed. As much as I hated to see Kate leave, the chemistry between Kate and DiNozzo was strained. The Director was a shadowy figure who really didn’t add much to the show. Played by veteran actor Alan Dale, he was underutilized. McGee was by now fully integrated into the team.

Season three begins with the team dealing with Kate’s murder.  NCIS gets a new agent, Ziva David, an Israeli Mossad agent.  A new NCIS director arrives, a former agent who also shares a past with Gibbs.  At the end of the season, Gibbs is injured in an explosion that leaves him in a coma.  Viewers see inside of Gibbs’ earlier life and the death of his first wife and daughter.  After waking up, Gibbs has a hole in his memory.  Former agent Mike Franks (Muse Watson) helps Gibbs to remember.  After his warning to the a Naval officer is not heeded, Gibbs retires.

Season four finds Gibbs in Mexico after he walked away from NCIS.  DiNozzo is temporarily heading up the team.  Later in the season, Gibbs has a love interest, at least for awhile.  Army CID Lt. Col. Hollis Mann is a reoccurring character during the season.

Season five will bring the end of Jenny Shepherd as she is killed while investing the death of a fellow NCIS agent.  Assistant Director Leon Vance assumes the top job and will stay with the show to the present.

Bellisario had a very specific vision for the show.  Bellisario told his his cinematographer and his editor that he did not want conventional, throw that style out the window; be creative he said. Conventional was boring.  William Webb is the cinematographer and Steadicam operator, credited from putting Bellisario’s vision on the screen. The moving camera follows the actors and the viewer goes inside the science with animation and CGI.  Each act is opened and closed with a distinctive look. There are jump cut in the middle of scenes to flashbacks or other information pertinent to the scene.

Bellisario is a Marine as are several members of the staff. A retired NCIS agent is used as a consultant on the show, as well as a forensic expert.  The equipment in Abby’s lab is the real thing. The two tentpoles of the show are realism and humor. Bellisario put humor into the show on purpose to balance the life and death situations, and to present a real side to military characters.

Bellisario saw Mark Harmon in The West Wing and immediately knew he should play Gibbs. “He brings his football player leadership to the show. He leads the cast. He’s very generous, he says please don’t make me the hero, give it to someone else? Who else in Hollywood does that?”

It’s about how this family of people work together. It is a character-driven show with humor. Even Harmon said, “I was drawn to the humor and the character’s flaws.”

Michael Weatherly (DiNozzo) was the only actor allowed to improvise by the producers. He was playing Robert Wagner in a Natalie Wood bio-movie. Wagner would play DiNozzo’s father starting in seven seven.

Cote de Pablo played Ziva David, Mossad officer before officially joining NCIS. Her character was a regular through season 11, and reoccurring after that. She instantly became a foil for DiNozzo and the two of them would grow a relationship. Ziva was tough as nails when she needed to be, and forever struggling with American pop-culture.

Sasha Alexander also said the comedy was her favorite part of the. She read with Harmon for the first show and felt the instant chemistry.  Her character, killed at the end of season two, was probably quite shocking when it aired.  A popular series character abruptly and violently leaves the cast.  Alexander went on to star in the popular Rizzoli & Isles crime series.

Davis McCallum was the charming and handsome Illya Kurakin on the mid-1960s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.  Casting him as Dr. “Ducky” Mallard was a great idea, a counterbalance to Gibbs.  Ducky is a natural with people, he can endlessly tell stories and has an inviting charm.  Gibbs is silent, cold and laser-focused.  McCallum put himself into the role by studying pathology, attending autopsies and frequenting medical examiner conferences.

Pauley Perrette is Abby, according to Bellisario. She studied for a Master’s degree in forensic science. She did not study acting, fall into it by accident.  Abby is certainly one of the most unique characters on television.  She was both scary and fascinating at the same time.  Her goth style was clearly off-putting to some, yet her almost child-like exuberance toward life and attachment toward her colleagues gave Abby a very warm aura. Do not mistake Abby for soft, you would not want to cross her and she could be most direct with people far above her paygrade.

Sean Murray (also Bellisario’s stepson) liked the character emphasis and the humor. His McGee character feels like he’s in this incredible new world, where he is finding his place.  Outside of Gibbs, the longest running regular character on the series.  His character evolved over time showing more confidence and leadership, and gaining more respect from DiNozzo and Gibbs as he stepped up and out of his shell.

Lauren Holly was NCIS Director Jenny Shepard beginning in season three to the end of season five when she was killed. Shepard was a former agent who has a past with Gibbs. It frequently caused issues between them.

Leon Vance moved up to director after Shepard’s death. He and Gibbs battle and there remains friction between them.

I have also watched seasons 7, 8 and 9 for comparison.  While they are fine stories and quality production, overall it does not not have the same charm as the first few seasons. NCIS has become a well-oiled machine, keeping the humor playful, the stories interesting, and delving into the characters’ backgrounds.  You meet Gibbs’ father (Ralph Waite) and learn about the loss of his first wife and daughter, meeting his ex-mother-in-law (played by Gena Rowlands).  DiNozzo’s father (Wagner) is the model for the boyish DiNozzo charm, yet the younger DiNozzo has more self-awareness than dad.


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