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.
NCIS: LA features three characters as its main field agents: G. Callen, Sam Hanna and Kensi Blye.* Each of these three characters is depicted as someone who could be forgiven for falling through society’s cracks. Callen grew up in foster care, but not just in your standard foster care: he was shuffled through dozens of homes, never stayed anywhere more than a couple of months and doesn’t even know his own first name because “nobody ever told” him. It’s hinted at various points that Sam grew up somewhere in the Midwest – which doesn’t necessarily suggest poverty, but does suggest distance from monied power – and he displays a deep interest in young, at-risk, inner-city black boys which at times suggests that he himself grew up in such an environment. Kensi’s Marine father was murdered when she was a teen, and it’s suggested that that may have orphaned her. It’s also mentioned that every man she’s ever loved has left her (usually in particularly dramatic fashion, as in the case of her father).
Given all that, it would be reasonable if Sam had turned into thug, Callen became a thief or con artist and Kensi fell into prostitution, or something like that. Instead, they all became not just upstanding citizens, but highly skilled NCIS undercover agents. Almost absurdly skilled. Obviously all three can fight, and Sam’s background as a Navy SEAL – one of the most elite branches of the U.S. armed forces – is reasonable. But then the skills start stacking up. Where Sam had a few years under his belt as a SEAL, Callen worked for both the FBI and the CIA, in addition to NCIS, and perhaps other organizations as well? NCIS: LA was launched through a two-part episode in NCIS, titled “Legend”, which was all about how Callen’s undercover skills are, well, legendary. He was so skilled that NCIS kept an eye on him for years before recruiting him away from his previous employer. In the first season alone, we find that Callen speaks Russian and Spanish fluently, possibly knows Morse code and is working on Arabic. Moreover, Sam is already fluent in Arabic and knows Morse code, and Kensi speaks Portuguese, knows Morse code and can read lips. If you add in the skills of various non-field agents, you also get Chinese and sign language.
Aside from the casual way that these sorts of extra knowledge are accumulated by the field agents, care is taken throughout the series to remind the viewer of both their disadvantaged backgrounds and their skills at the basic tools of an undercover officer’s trade: deception and the occasional dose of fighting. One sterling example is a short exchange where Kensi deceives a rental agent into admitting that he lets people rent his rooms under the table. Interspersed with Kensi’s discussion with the rental agent are shots of Callen and Sam betting on how fast she can succeed and then admiringly discussing her speed. This sort of interlude highlights that the NCIS agents, whose backgrounds suggest anything but success, are in fact incredibly good at what they do.
Actually, they are among the best in the world. We know this because of the steady stream of North Korean and Chinese spies, African terrorists, Russian mobsters and even corrupt FBI agents they either apprehend or kill. And the importance of the fact that this is a cop show about Navy cops cannot be understated. Callen, Sam and Kensi don’t just represent law and order, they represent American order. According to NCIS: Los Angeles, that order is grand. Even at America’s worst – even when the foster care system failed to the extent that it lost a child’s name – somehow it produced a legendary force for the rule of law.
The success of NCIS: Los Angeles and the rise of nationalism coinciding with NCIS‘ growth in popularity don’t necessarily mean that Americans are feeling optimistic, just as a fall season tilted towards pessimism doesn’t mean that we’re obsessing about the erosion of the American dream. This is a question of correlation, not causation. If I were to venture a guess, though, I would say that both the strong nationalism of NCIS: Los Angeles and the pessimism Stanley sees in the fall lineup come from the same source. Pessimistic series may come from pessimism about the current situation, while shows like NCIS: Los Angeles might spring from the hope that America can pull through these dark times, buoyed by the traditional values found in places like the Navy. One way or another, Stanley is right that popular culture reflects what is going on in society.
*A fourth field agent, Dominic Vail, was kidnapped partway through the first season and killed in an episode towards the end. Due to his lesser screentime, less information is available about him.