In their official report on streaming data for 2023, Nielsen listed NCIS as the third-most-viewed program, trailing only on-demand babysitter Bluey and the curious post-facto new-to-Netflix juggernaut Suits. The CBS procedural, spun off in 2003 as the order to the similarly Navy-oriented JAG’s law, racked up a cumulative total of 39.4 billion minutes in front of our eyeballs; last year alone, the human race spent nearly 75 millennia watching Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs get the drop on no-goodniks around the DC metro area. His closest competitors in spirit, the various public service squads peopling the Dick Wolf-verse over on NBC, didn’t even crack the top 10.
A logical person might assume that there must be something special about a cultural object of such remarkable popularity and longevity, but during tonight’s double season premiere for NCIS and fourth spinoff NCIS: Hawai’i, the opposite appears true. The bone-deep ordinariness of this franchise is its greatest strength, or at least its secret to success with viewers in search of programming that demands so little of them, it can feasibly be watched all the time forever. Forget “challenging,” this school of TV production barely even aspires to “stimulating,” instead going for a pleasant numbing effect not unlike a strong dose of morphine or the final stages before one freezes to death.
As the flagship series launches its 21st season, some anxiety about aging would’ve been understandable. After all, longtime lead Mark Harmon left during the 19th, and replacing his squad supervisor—even with the stalwart, dependable Gary Cole, his confident baritone assuring us that the American people are in good hands—could’ve provoked a full-on existential crisis in the writing staff. But no: The premiere is standard operating procedure. It follows up on a cliffhanger that saw agent Torres (Wilmer Valderrama, erstwhile Fez of That ’70s Show) remanded to the prison where he’d just done an undercover stint, checked back in under his own name after confessing to the murder of his boyhood abuser (Al Sapienza, perhaps best known as The Sopranos’ Mikey “Mr. GQ” Palmice). Of course there’s more to the situation than that, but he’ll have to make it through a dark night of the soul before anyone proves it, during which he gets to do lots of the thoughtful glowering that constitutes Serious Acting under the CBS Method.
The intent, visible beat-hitting in his performance pales next to that of the hyper-prescriptive writing; presumably, a big neon sign that says “NEVER GO TO COMMERCIAL WITHOUT A SUSPENSEFUL ACT BREAK” buzzes above the staffers in some on-the-lot bungalow. The sweatiest of all comes at the end, when Torres answers a call on his cell phone, only for the freeze-frame to usher in the credits before we can find out who’s on the line. It could be anyone! Which is to say it doesn’t really matter, so long as we can get together with the gang again next week.
Just entering a third season cut to a half-order of episodes by the strikes, Hawai’i doesn’t enjoy this same affection of familiarity, and the uneasy coalescing of workplace associates into a family is very much a work in progress. Agent-in-charge Jane Tennant (Vanessa Lachey) still pushes herself to earn the title, receiving a post-traumatic pep talk from NCIS: Los Angeles alum L.L. Cool J, who recommends Transcendental Meditation; back at the ranch, everyone seems to detest wry tech goblin Ernie (Jason Antoon), and a burgeoning love triangle involving the most conspicuously telegenic in the cast (Yasmine Al-Bustami, Alex Tarrant, Tori Anderson) exists in its own orbit.
The case of the week starts with a shooting on the beach and ends with a plane nosediving into the Pacific, with mischief from a Russian hacker farm hidden in our own backyard filling out the middle. Where the Dick Wolf productions thrive by ripping from the headlines, the sundry NCISes are shaped more by the general vibe of the news, or perhaps some email forwards passed along by an elderly relative. The Rooskies’ evil scheme to leak the entire US Marshals database—“every witness, every whistleblower”—hits the night’s steepest high of absurdity, though this also makes the rest of the episode feel drabber by comparison. Not even the location scouting around a vivid, little-photographed pocket of America can cut through the mildness, the agreeability that makes a show hard to dislike but impossible to love.
Though the NCIS Connected Universe represents the network TV machine firing at max capacity, it’s fitting that these series would find unprecedented success through streaming; the format’s infinite binge is ideally matched to the content’s potato-chippish addictiveness and lack of substance. This stuff keeps the lights on at CBS, and fills the silence in a lot of living rooms. In aiming for the middle, NCIS evinces an awareness that this is all it has to accomplish. That’s how the show has come so far. It’s also a guarantee it’ll never push itself any further.