I’m feeling under the weather this week, which might explain why I’m taking refuge in some old TV viewing while sniffling and sneezing my way through the day. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s review of the pilot episode of the ultimate comfort viewing series Murder, She Wrote comes another US pilot – that for NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as it is officially known), currently the top-rated drama series on American TV amazingly enough.
As opposed to a traditional stand-alone pilot project, this actually appeared as a two-part instalment in a different series called JAG: we’re more used to seeing this today, with the CSI franchise launching spin-offs with a story in the parent series used to set up the new series, and Criminal Minds has recently done the same – as has NCIS itself with its new LA-set offspring. JAG itself never really made much of an impact here in the UK (although it circulates through on cable channels such as Hallmark/Universal, so at least the episodes do air occasionally as part of the normal run of episodes as opposed to the rarely-aired Murder, She Wrote pilot) partly because it was always very militaristic and then after 9/11 cranked up the ultra right-wing patriotism to full-on bombast which played very poorly outside the American heartland. Fortunately NCIS reigned this sort of thing in, although in this pilot there’s still some whooping and hollering by the series regulars at a display of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in action and some interrogation involving keeping a prisoner naked and chained, which is uncomfortably fascist.
The two episodes are very strange indeed as instalments of JAG: despite being in the episode credits as usual, that series’ regulars barely appear in the first episode, which instead follows the NCIS investigation of the death of a pregnant naval lawyer. The first of the two parts is almost exactly how NCIS was formatted when it started to air in its own right, and most of the characters are present and correct from the start: David McCallum’s Ducky is a little creepier and more of a skirt-chaser than the amiable eccentric uncle he would become; Pauley Perrette’s Abby is toned down and less confident; Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo is younger, more casual and less of a smart-ass. But Mark Harmon’s Gibbs arrives fully formed and lends credence to the idea that the series was always a vehicle specifically created for him after his popular turn as Secret Service agent Simon Donovan in the 2002 season of The West Wing the preceding year. The pilot also includes Alan Dale as the NCIS director, indicating that his role in the eventual series was expected to be rather larger than it proved to be.
The one character that really, really doesn’t work is Robyn Lively’s former FBI agent Vivian Blackadder, who is humourless and grates badly not to mention screwing up a vital mission. No wonder she wasn’t invited back and got replaced by Sasha Alexander’s much warmer Secret Service Agent Todd (until she too was replaced by Cote de Pablo as Ziva.) The other major change is that the “corpse-eye view” sequences depicted in a 60s psychedelic false colour – which are really odd and off-putting – are fortunately dropped before NCIS went to series.
After the first episode of the two-parter, Ice Queen, which ends in the arrest of JAG series lead character Harmon Rabb for the murder, the story then defocuses from the NCIS team and takes time to establish the lawyers for Rabb’s trial – the OCD defence attorney played by Alicia Coppola and the laid-back, disorganised prosecutor played by Michael Muhney. Its odd that these two get such screen time which is already bursting at the seams trying to fit in both JAG and NCIS cast and makes you think that maybe the original idea for NCIS had more of a “law/investigation” and “order/trial” format in mind. (Coppola’s character did indeed make three appearances in NCIS.) And even then, the trial is wrapped up with 10 minutes to spare to allow the NCIS team to retake centre stage for an overseas anti-terrorism raid in Tunisia which suggests that this sort of guns-blazing undercover strand was intended to be a big part of the NCIS series (instead of having to wait for the LA spin-off to pick this action thread up in any depth.)
Pilots are always interesting to see “where it all began” and also what worked right away and what didn’t. Plenty about NCIS exists right from the first scenes but there’s enough distractions around the periphery to make you think that it could very easily have gone off in totally the wrong direction if they hadn’t been careful – or at least lucky.