Nationalism, Optimism and NCIS: Los Angeles

My favorite new show of fall 2009 is starting up again next week, so naturally I’ve been thinking about it. Then, yesterday, I read Alessandra Stanley’s review of this fall’s new series in the New York Times, which basically counters what I’ve been thinking about NCIS: LA.

Stanley argues, in the course of reviewing the new series lineup, that “decline and the erosion of the American dream infuse public discourse, so it’s inevitable that a streak of pessimism courses through the best new fall shows.” I don’t necessarily disagree with her observations about the new series, but I do think that my beloved NCIS: Los Angeles offers a good counterexample which suggests that she may be confusing correlation with causality here. It’s entirely possible that the general suckiness of now is resulting in pessimistic art. However, that same malaise has been hanging around this country for awhile – up to a decade, if you’re the stereotypical Hollywood liberal or were struck in a certain way by the September eleventh attacks. Why would that distress only show up now? Certainly you can argue for it showing up in other formats previously – such as Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – but there are as many examples against (United 93) as for. NCIS: LA is a particularly good counterexample because it is also a TV show; it premiered barely a year ago; and it is the third in a series of TV series, which allows us to look at how the JAG/NCIS/NCIS: LA formula has been tweaked over time.

JAG and NCIS have been steady law-and-order procedurals, one focusing on the court side of things, the other the investigative. NCIS: LA follows NCIS much more closely than NCIS followed JAG, but also sexes up the basic formula with more explosions, mysteries, spies and violence. At the same time, NCIS: LA uses its characters to display a heightened nationalism compared to the original NCIS – which, itself, has been suggesting nationalistic feelings through a recent story arc revolving around an Israeli Mossad agent’s pursuit of American citizenship. Continue reading