Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Who says the Easter Bunny's not real?": NCIS and The Mentalist

NCIS is a cool TV show for people who've never seen cool TV shows. In the manner of all CBS shows, it's endlessly, endlessly competent, and when you watch an hour of it, that hour passes as quickly and painlessly as possible, but none of this explains why the show has randomly become one of the biggest on television, bested only by Dancing With the Stars, CSI or 60 Minutes in any given week. What's more, the show is basically not watched by anyone in the 18-49 demographic (it finished FOURTH IN ITS TIMESLOT in that demo this week, while it looks likely to be the second or third most watched show overall!), which means that you almost never hear about it unless you go home for Thanksgiving. Still, the show continues to grow from year to year in a time when every other show is dropping, due to the general slump in network TV ratings. But WHY is the show so huge? I think you can only answer that by analyzing how the show appropriates a lot of hip elements from OTHER shows and sands them down until they're basically palatable to a more mass audience.

The first thing you need to know about NCIS is that it was created by Donald P. Bellisario, who's created five huge, hit dramas (which is nothing to sneeze at) but had only one attain success in mass pop culture. Magnum P.I., his first big series, made Tom Selleck a household name and was all over the culture in the mid-80s. He followed that up with Airwolf, a series I really only know of because it was the favorite of most of the guys in my kindergarten class. Quantum Leap was his next hit, and it was actually kind of a critical smash and garnered a number of Emmy nominations, though it was never a huge hit in the ratings (its cult, however, starved for science fiction, was sizable). Bellisario's next big series was JAG, which was canceled by NBC but picked up by CBS and then ran for millions of years in what seemed to be a parallel universe where everyone was really obsessed with JAG and wanted to know if the two lead characters would get together. NCIS, similarly, seems to run in a parallel universe where everyone is obsessed with NCIS, but it actually has the monster ratings to support this theory (the show has been huge IN RERUNS on Fridays, and its replays on USA also do very well). Despite that, media attention for the show is practically non-existent, and every article written about the show is mostly about how the media never writes articles about the show.

I've only seen a handful of NCISes over the years, but I do think the show has improved substantially since its first season, when it was known as Navy: NCIS and when the crime-solving was clumsily integrated with action sequences. The series has developed a nicely quirky sense of humor, and it has a variety of characters whose interplay is more enjoyable than something you might see from, say, the supporting stiffs on Cold Case. While the plotting is standard-issue CBS "guess the killer from the variety of guest stars" stuff, it at least offers some level of complexity beyond that of some of the other CBS shows. Indeed, the episode I watched this week mostly ditched the mystery of the week (some guy who was found dead in a box) to focus on an elaborate plot to out a mole within the NCIS unit (plus, it was a to-be-continued, which is something you rarely see on the serial-terrified CBS). I suspect that a large part of NCIS' popularity is that it has a kind of conviction in its characters, so it knows the audience will follow an off-template hour that's less about crime-solving and more about how the characters come together to solve a mutual problem (and, in fact, the mole was ONE OF THEIR OWN). It really strikes you as you watch NCIS that for all of CBS' blathering about creating its own hit serial and its attempts to make shows like Without a Trace or CSI into serialized entertainments, NCIS has actually pulled off the difficult transition from procedural show to limited serial.

And that's a part of its appeal -- people really dig the characters, and they're interested in seeing how they work together and banter among themselves. Nothing here is as complex as what you might see on, say, Lost or even House, but it's just complex enough to feel satisfying while not being so inscrutable as to lock out those who haven't ever seen an episode before. Plus, it takes a lot of elements of other, better and cooler shows and tosses them into its template. There's a cool, nerd girl. There's a guy who seems to ONLY make pop culture quips (rather insufferably, I might add -- he's easily my least favorite character). The camera occasionally swoops around. Something like a cool, techno throb beats on the soundtrack. And the Bones-y sense of humor is ever-present (NCIS predates Bones, of course, but the sense of humor came along over time, so I feel comparing the two makes sense). Every so often, the show combines all of this into one scene, and it becomes well-nigh impossible to watch, but most of the time, it's very carefully making itself SEEM cool without ever actually BEING cool. I don't think I'll ever quite bring myself to LIKE NCIS, but I can definitely see why it's become the favorite show of everyone in America who's over 50.

I'm less sure on The Mentalist, which is the biggest new show of the year by far (Fringe, which is second behind it, draws just over half the audience). The series seems to be justification for CBS' seeming obsession with turning Simon Baker into a TV star over the last ten years, and Baker's pretty good in the lead role. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the series is just USA's Psych played straight, and the premise -- super smart guy with one particular gift (in this case, the ability to pay really close attention and figure out when people are lying) helps the government solve crimes -- is straight out of the CBS playbook. The Mentalist could be the greatest show this side of Mad Men, and it would still seem tired.

Unfortunately, The Mentalist is NOT the greatest show this side of Mad Men. The writing is all right, but it feels the need to hammer home every plot point (like most CBS shows). There was a seance in the episode I screened that played like basically no seance ever would (I'm not saying that the show has to respect mediums or spiritualists, since the whole premise is that they're charlatans, but making them THIS BIG of charlatans lets everyone off the hook too easily). In addition, the show has some of the same affliction that House does in that it always feels the need to soften its main character's harsh stance against the unknowable in an attempt to keep itself from isolating the millions who DO believe in that which you can believe in only through faith. CBS has succeeded through making lots and lots of shows like The Mentalist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that yet another has succeeded, but it's still just a little disappointing that the network has such a stranglehold on what people are willing to watch.

One of the other things that's interesting about NCIS and The Mentalist is that The Mentalist, like most CBS shows, makes its main character a crime-solving machine. While he has the obligatory sadness about his dead wife and daughter, when it comes to solving a case, he's all business. NCIS, meanwhile, at least tries to give its characters points where they're sort of weak. The woman who's the mole is working because the bad guys have her daughter, and the main character worries this is all a trap for him since he would uniquely be affected by a story like that, having faced similar trauma with his kid. The whole CBS formula is based around the crime solvers being impossibly perfect machines. It's part of what makes the shows so comforting to so many (the bad guys are always going to get theirs), but it's also what makes the network so hard to take in so many ways. The only show OTHER than NCIS where the characters find themselves personally torn up by cases on a week-to-week basis is the generally solid Without a Trace (CSI also dips its toes into these waters), but the other shows fall too easily into a staid formula. I'd rather spend time with imperfect crime solvers like Charlie Crews on Life or the gang on House. The CBS supermen just hold so little interest to me anymore.

(Here's a random thing I noticed watching this much CBS that wasn't How I Met Your Mother -- have you ever seen how DIFFERENT the commercials on CBS are from the commercials everywhere else? They all seem pitched at a small town in Nebraska -- ads for K-Mart and for Glade air fresheners and not a cell phone or iPod ad to be seen anywhere.)

Tomorrow: Taking a look at Fringe, a review of Mad Men season two or a request for the return of the workplace drama. Speak up as to what you'd like to see in comments.


Jonathan B. said...

I'll request the workplace drama piece, as I still haven't watched Mad Men S2 (Argh).

Excellent write-up, though it was The Mentalist that finished fourth in its timeslot. Tuesdays @ 8 are ridiculously weak, so NCIS can still finish second to House. However, it is telling that despite being the #3 show on TV, it'll frequently miss the Top 20 for the 18-49 Demo, even finishing behind HIMYM, despite having nearly double the audience.

As for the audience that was obsessed with the "Will They?/Won't They?" drama of JAG and considers NCIS the awesomest show on TV, I introduce to my grandparents. And oddly enough my younger cousin. Dunno what's up with that.

Jennifer said...

Fringe, please. I'm conflicted on the show as to whether or not to keep watching it. On the other hand...stupid, stupid science, and a lead actress who is written better than she can play, and a premise where thanks to "we can't do a serial show," won't reveal what's going on. On the other hand, there's the Bishops. Help me decide whether or not it's worth sticking with!

joy said...

Wow Incredible!!! I truly love tis show..I saw this show a couple of weeks ago and thought that it was great! Here in Australia we're only a couple of weeks into it, but I'm hooked. It's the TV highlight of everytime..catch it NCIS Download here..

Watch NCIS Online said...

I am a HUGE fan of NCIS my favorite characters are
Dinozo, Gibbs, Zeva, Abby, Abby, ok I like em all but my faves are

Dinozo, Gibbs, Zeva and Dinozos G/F Shawna