NCIS – A Sleeper Agent

Today I find myself in the curious position of writing about the American television show NCIS, the long-running crime-procedural, which you have, without even meaning to, completely by accident, watched at least once.

The NCIS team on a case -
The NCIS team on a case

Writing about this show is weird for two main reasons. One is that I’ve never actually deliberately sat down to watch an episode of NCIS. The other is that I am not what you might call an avid TV watcher. In fact, I never watch TV at all. But I promised the HeadStuff editor that I would write a piece by Friday, hangover or no hangover, and here I am, writing that piece.

What I said just before about not watching TV is not entirely true. I’m occasionally in the same room as a television, and sometimes that television is on. This happens, for example, when I’m visiting my aunt in the countryside. As I can’t help out with killing chickens or digging up potatoes I’m pretty much useless on the farm. So there I sit, in my aunt’s living room, watching telly. And every single time, without exception, on at least one channel, there will be an episode of NCIS!

No matter the time of the day. Every. Single. Time.


And even creepier, as soon as one episode ends you can change channels and there it will be again, another episode starting up on another channel. And another channel… and another channel…


So despite never having sat down intentionally to watch NCIS, like so many millions of people around the world I’ve seen at least a dozen episodes. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that NCIS is part of a major conspiracy, attempting to brainwash the entire planet. What their aim is, I haven’t decided yet, but time will tell.

Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs -
Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs

In the interests of science, I decided to do some Serious Research. Over at Restoran Stari Fijaker in downtown Zagreb, I asked my friend Mario his thoughts. “It’s not really my kind of show,” he said, stirring his tea while I ordered another beer. “But it’s okay”. It’s true I’m sometimes mildly pleased when NCIS comes on, but that’s my own impression, too: It’s okay. But a glance at the Facebook fan page reveals more than 17 million likes. 6 of whom are my own friends. To add to my surprise, Wikipedia tells me that NCIS was voted America’s favourite TV show in 2011, and was the most watched show the following year. What is it about this mediocre show that keeps drawing in the crowds?

NCIS started in 2003 as a spinoff of that other mediocre show, JAG. Set in the world of naval crime and justice, each episode investigates some grisly murder or attempted terrorist plot. The team is made up of a tough but all too human Leader Dude, a second in command Chauv-Dude, Quirky Science Lady, Scary Warrior Lady, Tech Guy, and Lady in Charge Lady. There may be other characters, but these are the main ones who come to mind.

I think the appeal comes down to this: NCIS isn’t demanding. There’s almost always a bad guy, they almost always catch him, there’s a bit of heartache, some humour and then the credits roll. You never feel like you’ve been emotionally wrought, your intelligence hasn’t been insulted, and you could probably miss the next episode and still pick up where you left off. It harks back to an earlier time in television history, when shows were simply entertaining but didn’t always suck.

Critics and viewers alike get excited when a show comes out that seems to challenge conventions. “You’ve never seen anything like this before!” they say. “This show defies all taboos!” And that’s probably true. I’m sure there are loads of brilliant legal, medical, family, crime and sci-fi dramas out there that deserve to have a larger viewership. But NCIS is not falling over itself to change television, or to be clever and gritty and tense and edgy and dark. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; the blood and guts are kept to a minimum, the people are generally nice to one another, and I doubt the producers care that I don’t know any of the main characters’ names. It’s also not going out of its way to make you lose your will to live, like so many awful ‘comedies’. It’s enjoyable for the same reasons as a show like House – a mystery is solved, and even if there is a season-long arc, a resolution is reached at the end of each episode.

As to that conspiracy theory, I really can’t imagine now what it could be. What a lovely show. Yay America. Boo the bad guys. The credits roll, you put the kettle on, and then start looking for another episode. Because somewhere out there, another episode of NCIS is waiting, waiting for you to watch it. No matter where you are or what the time is.


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