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Hipster Crime Drama NCIS: Los Angeles Just More of the Same

  • Alex Wainer theFish.com Contributing Writer
  • 2009 5 Nov
Hipster Crime Drama <i>NCIS: Los Angeles</i> Just More of the Same

Today's network television drama is almost as dominated by the crime procedural as 1950s television was by Westerns. In the days of early television, you couldn't swing a lasso without hitting a cowboy on a horse.  Now, that same lasso would snag on a body bag tangled in yellow crime scene tape. With the long running Law & Order franchise, three CSIs, Criminal Minds, Bones and the top-rated NCIS, it seems that audiences love these criminal investigations.  And seeing as how most of these series start as spin-offs of another series, CBS was eager to exploit its biggest rating success by cloning it.

NCIS has, and after seven seasons, against all conventional expectations, risen to be network television's highest rated series.  (And it was itself spun off of CBS' popular JAG.)  Launched last spring on the original series as a "back door pilot," NCIS: Los Angeles is set a continent away from the first series' Washington, DC locale.  Spin-offs must offer the audience the same but different, like Arm and Hammer laundry detergent, but this time with non-chlorine bleach and a new fragrance.  The new show, which follows the original at 9:00 pm EST on Tuesday nights, tries to offer a somewhat slicker and cooler version since it's set in the sunny southern west coast milieu (where, incidentally, both shows are shot with California locations subbing for DC and surroundings.)

The Naval Criminal Investigation Service, arguably the most obscure of any of the agencies featured on television, is, like other law enforcement services, never as glamorous as the long-running original NCIS makes it look.  But, perhaps because of the agency's lack of familiarity, audiences could not mind the show's liberties with fast 45-minute investigations and Hollywood-handsome agents.  It helped that Mark Harmon's lead character Gibbs, grounds the show with his no-nonsense alpha-dog temperament and that the show's most attractive element is the camaraderie of the unit amidst the grim forensic details.

NCIS: Los Angeles extends the brand by moving even further away from realism making its agents LA hip, with iPod-era gadgets and an unlikely secret headquarters.  Twin leads, rapper LL Cool J who plays ex-Navy Seal Sam Hanna, and Chris O'Donnell as "G" Callen fit into the venerable television convention of crime fighting partners (Starsky and Hutch, Crockett and Tubs, and in O'Donnell's case Batman and Robin.) The pair have good, if not great chemistry, being the usual contrast in personality types.  Unfortunately the chemistry of this pair, LL Cool J with his big shaved head and ripped physique and "preppy despite his pullover and beard stubble" O' Donnell, don't add up to Mark Harmon's charisma. Perhaps viewers will see more interesting character details revealed as time goes by.

As is the custom of these shows, our heroes are backed up by a crew of specialists, all either runway-model gorgeous or unabashedly quirky.  They include Eric Beal (Barrett Foa) as the obligatory snarky tech nerd who constantly feeds the team electronic information as he stands in front of wall sized screen with his handheld wireless keyboard.  He instantly pulls up obscure information, from travel camera footage to private financial records, with two key strokes and a mouse click.  I'd love to see a plot line where someone asks just how legal all this instant access to personal information is (without a judge's bench warrant). Nate "Doc" Getz (Peter Cambor) is the team psychologist who offers instant psychological profiles on suspects based on their verbal and non-verbal clues, and is often the butt of jokes by other, less intuitive types.

The team's operations manager, Henrietta "Hetty" Lange is played by the distinguished actress Linda Hunt, obviously costumed and coiffed to remind us of designer Edna Mode, of Pixar's The Incredibles with her diminutive stature, her bobbed hair and owlish spectacles.  She's the mother hen for the all under 40 crew, seemingly in the mix to both discuss wardrobe issues and dispense bon mots of wisdom.  Why the government operation is secretly headquartered in a stylishly appointed Spanish Mission style structure escapes me. (Is this the 21st century version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?)

I knew I had a problem with the show when, in the opening credits, we see Sam and "G" running away from an explosion, a shot that's now an action movie cliché.  I don't really dislike NCIS: Los Angeles, it's watchable but completely unchallenging to the conventional action/crime genre. While certainly enjoying its initial ride on the coattails of the original series, in the week ending October 18, NCIS: Los Angeles lost six millions viewers from NCIS's lead in audience of 21 million.  The sunnier, O.C. version of a beloved crime drama isn't pleasing everyone. But the show is drawing enough of a crowd that you can expect to see it around for a long time to come.

NCIS: Los Angeles airs Tuesdays at 9:00 eastern on CBS (check your local listings) and is available on CBS.com.

Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.

Posted November 5, 2007