When Don Draper enjoyed his “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” moment of Zen last year, 4.6 million people tuned in — a record for the AMC series “Mad Men.” And when Jon Snow met his grisly end at Castle Black, 8 million people were watching, an all-time high for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
But this article is not about prestige dramas awash in Emmys that dominate the online world of recaps and Twitter debates that get so many through Sunday night and Monday morning. This is about a show watched by millions more, though not so many write about it: “NCIS” on CBS. On Tuesday, Michael Weatherly, a.k.a. Tony DiNozzo, announced he was leaving the series after a 13-year run.
“DiNozzo is a wonderful, quixotic character & I couldn’t have had more fun playing him over the past 13 seasons,” Weatherly tweeted. “Les Moonves & CBS gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. I will miss the amazing crew & cast, who are like family to me, & to the fans all over the world — THANK YOU, it’s been a fantastic ride!”
CBS was also touched.
“He is a valued part of the CBS family, and the immense charm and talent he brings to the screen as ‘very’ Special Agent Tony DiNozzo has helped make NCIS what it is today … the No. 1 drama in the world,” representatives for CBS said in a statement, as Entertainment Weekly reported. “We thank Michael for all of his contributions to this successful franchise and look forward to continuing to develop projects with him as part of our ongoing development deal.”
Avert your eyes, for a moment, from the millionth article about how great “The Wire” is: Weatherly’s departure from “NCIS” was a notable moment in the history of television. Sure, it wasn’t quite Diane leaving “Cheers” or Henry leaving “M*A*S*H*” — though it was a bit like Cliff or Norm leaving “Cheers” or Radar O’Reilly leaving “M*A*S*H*.”
For more than a decade, Weatherly played a lovable cut-up on a show declared “The Most Watched Drama in the World” two years running by data company Eurodata TV Worldwide and ranked No. 1 in a Harris Poll last year. His shenanigans — loving them and leaving them, serving as foil for the ever-dour Mark Harmon — helped make “NCIS” a cornerstone of CBS’s procedural lineup geared to older viewers who actually watch broadcast television. Median age of the average “NCIS” viewer: 60.
But fans did not need industry analysis to express their dismay.
“I think I speak for many, many fans here, but NCIS writers you need to send his character off to live happily ever after with Ziva!” one Facebook commenter wrote, referencing DiNozzo’s entanglement with another character. “I think we all agree there was real chemistry there. It would make a sad thing a tad easier to handle!” Another wrote: “Ok I’m gonna cry, we already lost Ziva, now DiNozzo too? What are yall doing to me? I’ve been watching since the first episode.”
That would be 294 episodes — compared with, say, “Seinfeld’s” measly 180. Yet, early Wednesday, the media seemed to be taking a pass on the big think pieces dissecting DiNozzo’s effect on our culture and the way we live now. This isn’t just a slight to Weatherly but part of a pattern in which a hugely popular show is neglected by the blogosphere and never wins an Emmy. If the rococo details of DiNozzo’s — not actor Weatherly’s, but character DiNozzo’s — Wikipedia page are any indicator, TV reporters hungry for Web traffic should be looking for an “NCIS” angle every Tuesday night after an episode airs.
DiNozzo is a wonderful, quixotic character & I couldn't have had more fun playing him over the past 13 seasons pic.twitter.com/GR7YSsmsKJ
— Michael Weatherly (@M_Weatherly) January 5, 2016
Yet, they don’t. What gives? Some blamed timing. “NCIS” doesn’t exactly fit into the Golden Age of television.
“In general, these dramas coming out of AMC and FX and HBO and Showtime and Netflix, they’re able to explore darker corners,” Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, the author of “TV Cops: The Contemporary American Television Police Drama,” said in 2013. “They’re infinitely more captivating. They’re able to be a lot braver. Really just because of regulation, [broadcast shows] just can’t go to those places as easily.”
Or, perhaps, TV writers are too snobby to get down in the dirt and think hard about a show that follows special agents of the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
“It is a procedural, and cool/would-be cool writer types don’t tend to write much about those, although I recall CSI getting more attention,” political analyst William Bradley wrote in the Huffington Post in 2011. “And it has a military theme. Even though the military is clearly the most respected and popular institution in America — something consistent in the Gallup Poll of recent years — the media doesn’t focus on it much unless wars are dragging on or unless something spectacular happens.” Bradley added: “So, we have this show, which a huge audience in America has discovered, but cultural writers and analysts have largely ignored.”
The New York Post spoke even more boldly to this point.
“True, ‘NCIS’ may not rule the jazz-hands and acne crowd,” Kyle Smith wrote for the paper in 2012, “but even by the peculiar logic of the TV industry, where 55-year-olds who purchase luxury automobiles count for nothing but unemployed students who can barely scrape together the price of a Pepsi get advertisers excited, CBS’s veteran Navy crime show comes out on top.”
Or maybe “NCIS” is just an outlier — one of the last old-school broadcast T. Rexes to roam the Earth.
“It’s like 1980s television,” the show’s executive producer and showrunner Gary Glasberg said last year, according to the Atlantic magazine. “This is an example of what television used to be, and I’m not sure that another show can replicate it.”
Of course, “NCIS” will soldier on without Weatherly. A man who once played Jesus Christ in a Sarah Silverman short may want to exercise different creative muscles — but he may never find another Tony DiNozzo.
As he told TVLine in 2011: “I’m just a guy who jumps into the Tony outfit — though sometimes Tony’s not wearing any clothes.”