By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
What's the procedure for making a procedural? It can't be very hard to identify the ingredients, but mixing them in just the right proportions is one skill that separates amateurs from pros. The people behind "NCIS: Los Angeles," ballyhooed spinoff from plain old "NCIS," appear to know what's what and when's when and how to make these things sizzle and click.
Perhaps it's a reflection on the overall quality level in today's films and television shows, but at some point in recent years, mere competence became thrilling. "NCIS: Los Angeles," which premieres Tuesday night on CBS, isn't innovative or brilliant, but there's some kind of joy to be had from watching the parts of the machine fit together just right and operate slickly and smoothly.
Although police (and medical) procedurals have proliferated on TV in recent years, it's commonly thought that the term goes all the way back to 1956, when it was coined by book reviewer Anthony Boucher as a label for murder mysteries and other crime fiction that dwells on "the realistic depiction of police work."
They may have become more popular partly because of advances in the technology of crime solving -- DNA evidence and crime-scene study (there's a nice moment in the premiere when the camera prowls though an unoccupied apartment looking for clues and finding at least one) that "Hill Street Blues" and "Law & Order" helped popularize for the genre; Chester Gould's "Dick Tracy" comic strip led the way.
Simple and basic though they seem, if a police procedural really were easy to do, there'd be even more of them. CBS already seemed to have more than enough on its prime-time schedule when "NCIS: Los Angeles" was announced, and justifiably skeptical hooting erupted. Another procedural? Another "NCIS"? Isn't this just what the world needs now not? It's easy to imagine these things melding into one another until they're just one ghastly mass of squealing wheels and wailing sirens -- brandishing more golly-gee gadgetry than a whole night of Popeil infomercials.
Strangely or not, the "NCIS" crew has brought off this spinoff with no apparent peril to the republic. Executive producer Shane Brennan and his troops have made the new addition to the family a separate show in its own right, yet one that depends very much for its existence on -- and airs right after -- the original "NCIS" on Tuesday nights.
One thing you've got to have -- two things, technically -- is a coupla hunks, and "Los Angeles" has them in LL Cool J as agent Sam Hanna and Chris O'Donnell as his buddy, G. Callen. Refreshingly, it doesn't appear as if one man is the star and the other his sidekick, with "sidekick" having been the assigned fate of many a black or Latino actor in movie and TV police procedurals of the past.
The formula was so rigidly observed that you'd think Moses had brought it down on a stone tablet from the mountaintop. This is a part of the TV-cop recipe that isn't new or worth preserving.
Other ingredients might be cliches but aren't offensive. The quirkily colorful boss is on hand -- diminutive but flinty Linda Hunt as Hetty Lange, who runs the office and nags people about their expense accounts. There has to be one extremely pretty crime-stopper (now-now: Chris O'Donnell doesn't count) and that would be Daniela Ruah as special agent Kensi Blye, and then there's the support crew back at the office, bright young nerds who aren't very nerdy and for whom computers and a big cool tele-screen actually work.
Naturally they're all part of an elite team that operates within and yet separate from law enforcement agencies or, in this case, the military; NCIS stands for -- do you remember? -- Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The audience generally doesn't flock to shows in which people wear uniforms, so you'll see few of those in the new "NCIS." One of the few is a naval officer's uniform, but the naval officer is, unfortunately, uniformly dead.
The bad guy or bad guys must, of course, be craven, depraved and ruthless beyond rudeness. Reports from Mexico and from the Mexico-U.S. border in recent months have made the notion of brutal, heedless bad guys fighting well-armed drug wars easy to believe. One of the bad guys in the "NCIS: Los Angeles" premiere is referred to as "the toe-cutter," and he has kidnapped an adorable little girl, which will give you some indication of how bad this bad guy is.
Even though its violence is more implied than shown, it still wouldn't be that hard to use a show such as "NCIS: Los Angeles" to help make a case against excessive violence on TV. If we could teleport a TV drama producer from 1954 to 2009, he or she would be astonished, and perhaps aghast, at how explicit and frequently depicted violence had become.
Violence might be lamentable, but there is no evidence that it is socially destructive when viewed by an adult audience. And violence is, let's face it, another ingredient of police procedurals without which they couldn't function. This is a clock that can't reasonably be turned back, though putting on the brakes now and then certainly wouldn't hurt.
In the second half of Tuesday night's premiere, Hunt translates a Latin phrase in approximately these words: "Give them what they want." Such is the mandate of the TV producer, within reason, and of the action-show producer especially. But it could do with a bit of amending, maybe along the lines of "Give them what they want -- but not so much of it that it hurts them."
"NCIS: Los Angeles" gets the job done and without, indicators indicate, flooding the streets with gore. It's a procedural that follows strictly the established procedure, but it has likable characters, dislikable bad guys and the occasional flabbergasting shot of L.A. excess at its most opulent. Other than songs and dances, there really doesn't seem to be much that could reasonably be added.
NCIS: Los Angeles (one hour) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.