Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Another day, another badly disfigured corpse.

Such is the work-a-week grind for the folks of NCIS, the forerunner of CBS’ seemingly ever-growing NCIS empire and one of many wildly successful acronym-laden dramas that has kept the network viable in the streaming age.

And the use of an acronym for a name (it stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service) is oddly apropos: After all, these good military investigators spend their days wallowing in a veritable alphabet soup of crime and clues. Someone shows up on the GPS DOA bearing foreign DNA on her GAP jeans. But then the suspect, ID’ed as a J, has an FTA, which brings in the FBI …

Well, you get the idea.

The NCIS team is led by longtime special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a former marine. He, along with a bevy of clever investigators, take on the military’s toughest crimes—most of them involving a dead person of some sort. Does the team, or the audience, mourn over these poor, dead souls? Not really. How could they? How could we? The “pros” we’re watching take the job in ghoulish stride, smoothing over the blood and gore with a steady patter of wit and the occasional romantic entanglement. Besides, we meet a new corpse or two or 10 almost every week. So the calluses have built up pretty thick.

You Can’t Handle The Truth!

Television has the curious ability to make the horrific humdrum. And NCIS is by now, to its legions of viewers, practically comfort food. The drama began its run way back in 2003, when the iPhone was just a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye and Donald Trump had yet to even helm The Apprentice, much less the country.

Throughout most of its run, NCIS has been a perennial ratings leader, and it shows no signs of slowing. It wrapped up its 17th season in 2020 as network TV’s highest-rated show. With star Mark Harmon now at 68 years old, I’m pretty sure that CBS is plotting to have him cloned.

The rest of the cast has inevitably seen quite a bit of rotation. Other NCIS staffers have come and gone and, sometimes, come back again. But the show itself has remained remarkably consistent … and that includes some consistent problematic content.

Admittedly, the TV-PG NCIS is far less disturbing than many a crime procedural. We don’t see the inside of autopsy rooms in every episode, as we might have with CBS’s equally long-running and now-departed CSI; and the crime scenes are rarely as horrific as we might’ve remembered from Criminal Minds. Indeed, in some episodes, no one dies at all.

But death and murder are still frequent enough guest stars to warrant attention, and those killings are often accompanied by blood and bodies. In addition, the team sometimes stops off at tawdry places of business (for work or pleasure) and alcohol and drug use can become plot points, too. And often, Gibbs isn’t at all put off by the prospect of breaking rules if it’ll help him crack a case.

This is a competent, sometimes clever show that always promises a tidy resolution by the time the credits roll—and that’s something we long for in our daily lives. All those pesky deadlines get buried, for an hour, underneath the fictional dead.

Episode Reviews

April 14, 2020: “The Arizona”

In this de facto season finale (production for Season 17 was shut down after this episode because of the coronavirus), a Navy admiral comes home to find his wife missing and blood on the floor.

A kidnapping and murder? No. Just a 95-year-old man who broke into the admiral’s home, stole a precious medal and is using it as leverage for an unusual request: When he dies, the man wants his remains to be placed in the U.S.S. Arizona, which sank during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He claims that he was serving aboard that ship during the attacks, which gives him the right for that honor. But the catch is he has no way of proving it, because he had served under his brother’s name. It’s up to the NCIS crew to determine whether the old man’s telling the truth.

We see blood on the admiral’s floor and a bloody, bandaged wound on the old man’s arm. He also bears a burn scar from, he says, the attack on the Arizona. We hear some horrific and graphic recollections of the day of the attack, and we learn that the Admiral’s daughter was killed by an IED. Someone suffers a heart attack and dies.

We hear about the difficult relationship the old man had with his family, and he considers the men he served with on that ship as his brothers. Some characters lie. We hear some foul language, including “a–” and “d–n.”

April 27, 2010: “Moonlighting”

A murdered military man turns out to have likely witnessed a gangland hit. And corpses pile up like sandbags: One man dies from a bullet to the brain (we see the bloody hole in his forehead), another from drowning (his corpse is chained, and we see bruises and cuts). Both are shown with their chests gorily stitched together following autopsies. Another 10 people are killed in an onscreen explosion, and we see medical personnel trying to match charred chunks of human remains with one another. Two others were immolated.

Timothy McGee boasts of killing 28,000 people in a video game. A technician cracks wise at the expense of dead folks. There’s talk of sexual harassment and getting a “lap dance from a nun.” A guy and his girlfriend are shown from the back with their shirts off. She’s wearing a bra.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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