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NCIS is better than critics like to think

November 8, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
TV critics love to sneer at "NCIS" and "NCIS: Los Angeles," CBS's hit dramas about Naval crime investigators. Both shows are regularly among the top 10 shows of the week and I kind of like both of them.

But admitting to liking either show is apparently a breach of good taste.

"Really, America? NCIS is our most popular show?" writes an incredulous Brian Donovan at

"Given that you, constant reader, are among that select group of pop culture aesthetes discerning enough to seek out TV coverage articles at this site, chances are that you don't know anybody who watches NCIS, but it's a top-rated show that's currently in its ninth season," sniffs Phil Nugent at "The series was launched at a time when CSI was all the rage and sprouting spin-off series all over the CBS lineup like acne." And so on and so on.

Nugent thinks he would have known more about the show if his grandmother had lived a little longer, since he occasionally watched TV with her. The implication is that only people on their death beds would actually like the show. His is an opinion shared by certain critics I know, even though NCIS and NCIS-Los Angeles both do quite well among viewers ages 18 to 49 as well as among those over 50. For instance, the Nov. 8 episode pulled in 20.31 million total viewers, more than three times as many as the second most popular show -- FOX's show Glee, which drew 6.9 million viewers. Advertisers care more what young people are watching, but NCIS beat the pants off Glee there too, with a 4.1 rating for viewesr aged 18 to 49 compared to Glee's 3.1 rating. CBS procedurals tend to go for mass audience appeal and pull in the younger viewers as well as the old. CBS programmers are very, very good at knowing what their audiences like.

In August, some of the said critics were in despair when five of the stars of NCIS were listed among the 10 most popular and recognized TV stars in the country. The highest "Q" rating goes to Pauley Perrette, who plays the perky Goth forensic scientist Abby Sciuto on NCIS.

Abby's my favorite character on the show too, but Perrette creeps my critic friend out a little bit because she's 42 but her character wears her dyed black hair in pigtails and affects an innocent, infectious air. The character is supposed to be considerably younger and Perrette manages to pull it off somehow, even though I doubt the Navy would permit any of its real forensic scientists to wear Goth gear in the lab or be as insubordinate as Abby occasionally is. For a long time Abby was the only character I could pick out on the show.

Her quirks make her distinctive: she's addicted to coffee, drives a hearse painted in bright colors, sleeps in a coffin, loves animals and is the acknowledged favorite of no-nonsense team leader Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), who regards her and other members of his team as surrogate children since his own wife and daughter were murdered years before.

I like all of the other characters in the show too, from ex-Mossad agent Ziva (Cote de Pablo) and her bickering with fellow agent Tony DiNozzo, who occasionally borders on being a jerk, to nerdy nice guy McGee (Sean Murray) to Gibbs' best friend "Ducky" (David McCallum), the chief medical examiner. The plots themselves are typical crime show fare, but the cast interactions have brought viewers back week after week for going on nine years.

The critics are undoubtedly right about all the show's flaws: it's derivative, formulaic, reinforces law and order and the old world order. It's not a show that breaks much new ground, but it does entertain and it does that very, very well.

The Nov 8 NCIS episode was the first of a two parter about the investigation of a plane crash carrying the bodies of men slain in battle. The second part of the episode airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. on CBS.


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