Although NCIS cannot be considered the longest running show in the U.S. primetime broadcast, it has definitely cemented its position as one of the most popular TV series. Started in 2003, NCIS centers around a group of people belonging to the titular department and solving crimes, which might seem as a rather basic series with a one-trick gimmick aimed at lasting three years at most. However, much to the surprise of critics and most viewers, the show proved that there was more to it than a basic story about special agents.
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Although the show focuses on the problem of crime in the United States, its message is applicable to an average viewer since it states with every episode that justice will prevail (Love Thy Neighbor). Therefore, despite numerous clichés and stiff characters, its narrative appeals to very understandable emotions of its viewers, thus conveying the idea of responsibility and the need for justice to its audience, which aligns with the American values and the idea of social justice.
The willingness to conform to the tradition and the reluctance to make changes to the traditional narrative of a criminal drama comes out in full blue when considering the writing choices made in the show. Although the presence of a screenwriter allows producing a more polished result, the current text suffers from the presence of numerous tropes that are typically associated with detective series. In addition, the writing for the series, while having lightly improved, still lacks the trust in its viewers.
For instance, the characters in the show tend to tell the audience the exposition instead of showing it, such as in “Love Thy Neighbor.” There is a point in the episode at which the background of the victim is told entirely by one of the main characters, whereas it could have been shown through a clever transition. Particularly, Loni, one of the characters, states:
That poor, sweet man. He only moved in a month or two ago. So you didn’t know him well? Well not for lack of trying. As a fellow divorcee, you know, I tried to make him feel welcome. But he kept to himself mostly sadly. (Love Thy Neighbor)
Therefore, the writing remains rather stiff due to the necessity to use characters as the devices for plot exposition. As a result, their language is relegated to extremely short phrases that serve merely as pointers to very general character traits, which implies the subversion of individuality. NCIS does not explicitly pander to the idea of conformity and compliance with stereotypes that perpetuate the concept of consumerism in viewers, thus “communicating meaning for a product” (Maasik and Solomon 3).
However, it clearly encourages the audience to accept the characters that lack individuality. For instance, in the episode under analysis, there is a murder scene, during which the narration stalls since McGee, one of the characters, restates the obvious without either showing their personality or moving the plot further: “’Whoever robbed these houses, definitely a pro.’ – ‘And now a murderer.’” (Love Thy Neighbor). In the exchange provided above, one might make a very slim argument that the specified exchange contributes to fleshing out the character of McGee as a character who always needs to be the center of the team’s attention by inserting a witty remark and ending the argument. However, the specified exchange does not prompt any further development of the argument, which represents a problem.
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When considering the purpose of the narration and the way in which it contributes to the narrative development, one must admit that the problems with the writing help achieve the set goals. Particularly, the narrative is aimed at grasping people’s attention and keeping them on the edge of their seats throughout the episode. The concise dialogue and the witty retorts with which the lead characters exchange helps build the tension, thus keeping the viewers engaged.
As a result, the tools used for shaping the narrative are directly tied to its goals. The show tries to introduce the elements of sarcasm into its context in order to feel organic in the environment of the contemporary American culture with its propensity toward self-irony. However, the show also conveys the elements of sincerity and appeal to the audience’s emotions, which is reinforced by the introduction of complex themes such as rehabilitation of criminals versus their punishment.
Although the context in which the show characters interact might seem is quite distanced from the daily routine of an average American, there are elements that intersect with the lives of average citizens. The presence of myths also contributes to making NCIS closer to its target audience. For instance, the problem of power structures in the contemporary society trickles into the narrative, arranging the roles of the characters respectively despite the current trend in the Hollywood cinema as people feel “powerless in an industry dictated mostly by the very subjective notion” (Frings). Specifically, the image of a white man being at the helm and retaining most of the power can be seen as explicit in the show, especially in the interactions between Abby, the forensic expert, and the rest of the crew.
The semiotic elements that the character design incorporates already signal the presence of a stereotype, particularly, the subversive concept of a young and beautiful female scientist that represents a nonconformist culture, Goth being the case. As a result, the character that was supposed to challenge the audience weakened the statement that the show seemed to be trying to make.
The same phenomenon can be observed when considering the semiotic elements represented in the visual aspects of the show and particularly its cast. One of the two female leads often seems to play the roles of token females, which the screenwriters of the show have partially addressed by establishing the fact that these characters have lives beyond their work. Specifically, the way in which Abby’s character looks already establishes her as the comic relief due to the dissonance between the seriousness of her job and the unconventional look that she has.
However, the other important character in the team, Ziva introduces a positive change in the specified dynamics by subverting not only gender tropes but also the stereotypes associated with portraying Jewish women in cinema. The observed phenomenon is an important change from the perspective of the Feminist theory since it offers a shift in roles within the established hierarchy (Hole et al. 447). The specified situation is especially important in the setting where an actor is ordered to follow the script directly: “Just say the line, man” (Huang). Particularly, instead of creating an obnoxiously loud and explicitly flamboyant character, she plays her part in a rather subtle and quiet manner.
As a result, Ziva becomes a compelling character, contributing to the change in the semiotic of ethnicity, race, and gender in movies and TV shows. In a similar vein, ethnic diversity is represented to a rather unsatisfying degree in the cast. While there are characters such as Leon Vance and Nick Torres, there is a lack of diversity within the cast, which conveys a rather unsettling message about the representation of diverse populations in the show.
Nevertheless, the message that the show conveys is quite positive, albeit slightly generic. The concept of justice, which the writing stretches to the ideas of social justice and equity, helps introduce the audience to the necessity to change the existing status quo. Since the show is aimed at an average American citizen, its ideas, being fuelled by its emotional context, work rather well as the tools for promoting the ideas of social justice and equity to the target population.
Simultaneously, these ideas and concepts are quite broad, which allows the audience to absorb them and incorporate these notions into their system of values. Thus, NCIS contributes to shaping people’s interpretation of justice as a whole, including its social and legal aspects. Although some of the aspects of the storytelling can be regarded as questionable, the show is a net positive for the equality agenda.
Although the characters of NCIS cannot be described as especially new or provocative, the recognizable themes that the narrative in the series contains draws the audience to the show, thus keeping it attractive for a considerably sizeable demographic. While the series incorporates a range of tropes that are typical for a criminal drama, the narrative cycles back to the concept of justice in each episode, thus creating the sense of comfort and satisfaction in its audience.
The repetitive nature of the narrative and its recurrent structure has not made the show ear its welcome due to the introduction of new elements and conflicts, such as the decision to part ways with one of the core characters within the series. As a result, slight changes in the dynamics keep viewers on their toes, whereas the message conveyed by the narrative in each episode comforts them. The writing of NCIS cannot be considered groundbreaking, yet it allows its characters to breathe, at the same time aiming directly at the sense of security in its audience.
Frings, Victoria. “Hollywood’s Hidden Sexism: How Casting Notices Keep Beauty Standards Alive.” Salon. 2014. Web.
Hole, Kristin Lené, et al., editors. The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Gender. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Huang, Eddie. “Network TV Ate My Life: Eddie Huang on Watching His Memoir Become a Sitcom.” Vulture. 2015. Web.
Love Thy Neighbor. Directed by Dennis Smith, performance by Mark Harmon, Sasha Alexander, and Michael Weatherly, Belisarius Productions, 2018.
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Maasik, Sonia, and Jack Solomon. Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 7th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.