On 'NCIS,' at least, the bad guys always get caught

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 4:22 PM

Leroy Jethro Gibbs arrived in a troubled world in fall 2003, a tough but tender former U.S. Marine and chief character on a new CBS drama called "NCIS." He soon became a salve for the wounded American psyche.

In an era when the military is revered more than at any time since World War II, Gibbs and his team at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (modeled on the real agency based in Washington) punish those who kill U.S. sailors and Marines. Every week a military corpse turns up, and 42 minutes later, someone pays for the crime.

"I think this is a show for its time," said Shane Brennan, executive producer. "In the post-9/11 world, everything has changed. The world is looking for a victory. People can come to this show and they can see good triumph."

"NCIS," the most-watched scripted show on TV, is gaining audience, even in its eighth season: They have topped 20 million for four consecutive weeks, with a show record of 23 million Feb. 1. Mark Harmon, who plays Gibbs, makes a half-million dollars per episode.

"NCIS" is yet another crime show on a traditional broadcast network known for an audience that skews older and programming that tends toward the comfortable and formulaic. It has the predictable cast of likable characters - each witty, tough, smart and attractive. But "NCIS" has also done something rare: It seems to have tapped into the national zeitgeist in a way that the likes of Hawkeye Pierce, Archie Bunker and the cast of "Friends" did in earlier decades.

Since 9/11, nearly 6,000 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 42,000 have been wounded. For the families, there is almost never anyone to hold accountable.

But on Gibbs's watch, we meet the killers and feel the satisfaction of seeing them punished. The "NCIS" crew takes on al-Qaeda cells and international assassins, tracking them down with their wits and high-tech gizmos. We watch Gibbs look them in the eye and smirk. He's smarter than they are - we are smarter than they are. Gibbs puts them away for all of us.

Norman Lear, the producer who created Archie Bunker and "All in the Family," said in an interview that "now is the time" for this type of drama. "It may be revealing something more than other shows," he said.

During one episode, Gibbs's dad, played by 82-year-old Ralph Waite, best known as the patriarch of "The Waltons," grabs his shotgun and faces down a Mexican cartel boss who has come to kill him. And there you have it: John-Boy Walton's dad, wholesome and true, free and brave, protecting the Homeland from Those Who Would Do Us Harm.

It's all as self-consciously flag-waving as "JAG," the square-jawed show about a Navy lawyer from which "NCIS" was spun off. But it's catnip to viewers across the political spectrum.

"'NCIS' is obviously a very pro-United States show," CBS President Leslie Moonves said in an interview. "I don't care what your political views are, we support our troops."

Moonves said "NCIS" is unusual because it was a hit for six years but then became a No. 1 juggernaut in its seventh season, with a popular spinoff ("NCIS: Los Angeles") and viewers around the world. "NCIS" is a top-rated drama in Australia and does well in Germany, Britain and Italy. Even the French, not famous for their affection for the U.S. Marine Corps, have made "NCIS" a top-rated show.

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