In memory of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I spent the last month bingeing 18 seasons of notable powerhouse and the breadwinner of CBS’ ratings for the better part of the past two decades, NCIS. It is American law enforcement and militaristic propaganda at its mediocre best, and what bell hooks so memorably phrased in her extraordinarily apt aphorism: Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. Yes, 415 episodes of it—one after another, after another, ad nauseam; ad nauseam not for the characters, but for the mind-numbing procedural format that I’m not a fan of because after a while it begins to atrophy the brain and that promulgation of stuff that makes you roll your eyes and curse at the screen. Otherwise, I enjoyed it and loved the characters, making me wonder on what level of masochism I ride.
I admit to previously tuning on and off a few seasons having been pulled into it after watching Secret Service Agent Simon Donovan aka Mark Harmon guard and romance Press Secretary CJ Craig on The West Wing; he was—spoiler alert—gunned down in a bodega robbery while President Bartlett was dispatching a SEAL team to illegally and clandestinely dispose of a foreign diplomat and terrorist thereby breaking the Posse Comitatus Act, the name of the episode. Yes, like most Americans, especially us poor ones, I got most of my United States civics education from network fictional dramas—you know, those ones the conservative right calls libral?
Let me pause and laugh at that for a moment.
Ok, moving on.
Before I post my thoughts, I want to note that I do have a certain level of artistic respect and fondness for the series, characters, etc., or else I wouldn’t have watched every episode. I also, of course, have a philosophical and critical love/hate relationship with some of the sociopolitical themes, as well as the direction it has taken given what transpired historically while on air. In the wake of the last few years of political and cultural upheaval, and the rise of the neofascist rightwing conservative insurgency of the Republican party within the US government, the show has evolved, somewhat; however, it has mostly, but not totally failed—like more than a few entities, be it organizations or individuals—to capture the reality of that ongoing insurgency and such into the overall themes, generally adhering to the hubris of colonialism, militarism, that bogus exceptionalism and the standard law enforcement procedural propaganda that LalaLand monotonously produces; this probably in order to appease said forces for it to air on US networks—the more nuanced Hollywood censorship that we rarely hear about openly, but is generally assumed universally; or, perhaps it did capture the tired complacency and banality of it all? Anything more educationally provocative and cerebral usually lands on pay television where lots of the electorate can’t go, or won’t—kind of like those capitalistically-required ever burdensome journalistic paywalls most news orgs have now (don’t @ me). Before long, those NCIS-types of thrifty introspective law enforcement procedurals allegorically become the cave walls of Plato’s Cave with the intent not to foment the populace away from what they consider the standard bearer—some neoliberal hodgepodge of that bell hooks adage I wrote about prior. This in order to fit their civic and social engineering and control propaganda aimed, I gather, towards an elite conservative libertarianism that prop up an ever domineering oligarchy—something not exactly pro-life (the actual living, breathing lives) and liberty (egalitarianism), but pro-money (for the rich) and consumer (no regulations, of course), and anything that fulfills those needs. With the occasional nuanced honest and provocative pokes to make it seem just the slightest bit culturally relevant, the show is typical fare on a network that has multiple nights and many shows dedicated and bestowed to United States law enforcement propaganda. Given that we are a police state, it fits.
That’s incredibly cynical, you say—is it really? Or is it pragmatically realistic, disconcerting, and humbling, not to mention terrifying and typical for American television?
To be fair, I’m not denigrating procedurals by calling them thrifty, but relegating them to a product and commentary on the society and time to which they are birthed—a sort of Rorschach test considering. In literary parlance, I would say they were an easy, quick genre read. I would not call NCIS gritty—I think that’s the word the kids are using nowadays. The show does occasionally drop some humor of which I always appreciate and applaud, especially dark humor. The investigations are quick and easy and solved usually 30-35 minutes into the show, and they rarely touch upon anything outrageous and challenging to the status quo. The bad guys generally vary in scope.
I also wanna mention the women on this series, behind and in front of the camera, were and are absolutely fabulous. I commend them for having successfully conquered and completed that part of their profession regardless of the outcome and what it cost them—some more than others, especially given what transpired behind the scenes and on the good ole boy network (and fans) CBS is known for, from what I hear. I congratulate them knowing it was, no doubt, difficult as hell, and encompassing that with their performance making it all the more realistic and comparable historically and sociopolitically. I get it—it was your Everest; you conquered it and can now put it in your past as a lived and learned experience, as any woman would. Congrats on that feat and I hope it didn’t traumatize you for life.
Clichéd, steely-blue-eyed, white man, and Law Enforcement Officer (LEO), Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), is your patriarchal daddy figure, and in the words of very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, his subordinate, “former Gunnery Sergeant, Marine sniper, coffee aficionado and functional mute.” He has a fuck-load of problems emanating and surrounding mostly to when the US started the so-called ‘war on terror’ (don’t we all?) and apparently hopping around sniping individuals in South America. Though most of his problems (besides the toxic masculinity and his attachment to that Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchal mindset) stem from the murdering of his wife and young daughter by a Mexican drug lord while he was deployed, to which he goes south of the border to execute then ultimately realizes that vengeance didn’t really take away his pain or make him feel better. This backstory has no appearance in season one, at all. Actually, the entire first season is zero to light on backstory, and backstory is like foreplay to those of us that enjoy character studies and, you know, good writing—so, you don’t really have to imagine who was writing it. I’ll let you chew on that bit of snark.
In the first season, Gibbs and DiNozzo are shallow, macho, sexist, entitled womanizers and chauvinists with little backstory and character that consistently encroach on women’s personal space; to be fair, the latter never really goes away and supposedly a part of their charm of which I neither agree nor disagree. I’m assuming that these characteristics were purposeful (or clueless) in the scheme of things given that the one woman on the field team, former Secret Service Agent for Dubya, Caitlin ‘Kate’ Todd, is a ball-busting, quick-witted feminist that carries a gun and rails constantly on DiNozzo’s toxic maleness—of which he portrays skillfully, and of what has been rumored behind-the-scenes, more authentic than not (Sorry, Mike—cowboy up and take your criticism like the man you are). I don’t do fandoms, but can only imagine how the male fandom treated Sasha Alexander’s character at the time, or any woman on this show. Women should get extra bonuses the more toxic the fandom is towards them.
Spoiler alert: Kate is just one of the many women on the show that end up dead and, as you know, I have a real problem with the constant murdering of women on television series. The show has a different perspective from the intellectually gifted and philosophical Dr. Mallard who said this to Gibbs upon Kate’s murder: “Well, you just said it. You’ve lost men. Have you ever lost a woman? Let’s face it, Jethro, you and I are a couple of old chauvinists. Women will never be equal in our eyes until they’re equal in death.” Well, okay, but that doesn’t seem to be penetrating the misogynistic maleness of the world. I really want someone to philosophically expound on that statement in a sociopolitical or psychological explanation and make me understand. That remark, however, does lend me a different perspective to ponder, and I appreciate that.
The representation on the show failed like most anything in the US, especially LalaLand and government. This has gotten better evolving slowly with the addition of Rocky Carroll and Cote de Pablo. The first few seasons were a bit shameful in that respect with hardly any BIPOC besides the bad black and brown people, especially terrorists from the Middle East, specifically Afghanistan (so many Afghanistan stories). And let’s discuss that. Shows like this rarely seem to raise questions about or poke at Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, or any of our other problematic allies, or even the so-called friendly ones that can oftentimes cross those ever-movable government lines in the sand. I was surprised when they introduced Israel storylines, but those have been hardly objective to Palestinians; and I was also equally astonished that they brought in a British bad guy, but then he wasn’t really a bad guy and then something else happened—I cannot remember what exactly. There’s hardly any reference to the unjustified and illegal war in Iraq. The gaslighting of a colonialist American exceptionalism, law enforcement, and militarism rooted in a white Christian nationalism that is fuel for an otherwise current fire and maelstrom that still burns ugly and fierce and leads back to bell hooks’ adage above and my earlier statements is witnessed time and time again. The show pretty much white washes all of this to an embarrassing degree, but doesn’t most of these cop shows airing today and ever? They do occasionally slip in an honest and authentic poke at examples of those adages but not nearly enough to seriously make a dent. Does it mimic the white elite culture’s complacency and ignorance? Or do they just not care? Or is that nuanced Hollywood censorship I was referencing above? The show only touches upon the more serious issues in the military, law enforcement, and government including homelessness, health care, rape, civil rights abuses, corruption, abuse of power, white supremacists, domestic abuse, misogyny, femicide, inceldom, and so on. I was most curious how it would respond to the Trump administration’s rampant corruption, bigotry and overall lawlessness; the only real thing that popped out at me is Director Vance commenting on how he was using nepotism in which I’m sure was meant as irony since he is a Black man in power.
Speaking of nepotism, all but one of Mark Harmon’s family has been on the show and apparently McGee played by Sean Murray is related to the show creator and his brother is on another NCIS show. This reminds me of the conversation that went around social media recently about how prominent Hollywood stars that benefited from nepotism scoffed when someone brought up the industry’s blatant nepotism problem. Since most shows are littered with the showrunner or actor or producer or networks’ relatives, friends or girlfriends, nepotism is probably not the hill anyone in Hollywood should die on—and they should probably really address that.
NCIS has the honor of hosting one of my favorite characters of all time: Ziva David played by Cote de Pablo. I was a Tiva fan but mostly just a Ziva fan and was distraught at how that relationship evolved; I contribute that dysfunction, not to human relationships per se, but to a dysfunctional and predominantly archaic male Hollywood mindset and writing team that believes that getting a couple together on a show is the equivalent of a TV death of the couple and the show. Whatever—the romantic, writer and dysfunctional human within me wholeheartedly refuses to believe that. Ask a romance writer to write that part of the story if you disagree.
I liked Ziva’s replacement, Bishop played by Emily Wickersham, and her chemistry with Torres played by Wilmer Valderrama who I was surprised to learn played Fez on That ’70s Show. And just as Bishop’s character was getting a bit more interesting, she leaves, presumably to go deep undercover on the show and to have a baby in reality. One hopes that all the women leaving the series is not because the rumored drama and dysfunction behind the scenes. We, as viewers, have to factor those types of reality into things unfortunately, as much as fandoms choose not to, up to and including all that drama as well as the many deaths that have hit the series as shown by the repeated ‘in memory of’ photos after various episodes—my condolences for those many losses.
Some of my favorite episodes feature Ziva predominantly or Tony and Ziva like Under Covers, and by far my favorite was Truth or Consequences, but seriously, don’t get me started on how Gibbs takes out the bad guy a mile out as a sniper then teleports into the building less than a minute later. It’s little details like that in the show that make me roll my eyes. I loved Ephemera and 1mm. I recognize and appreciate the shows’ episodes honoring of soldiers and their families and their sacrifices, both big and small, and I understand the necessity for an agency such as NCIS—no entity or individual within our government, or anywhere, should be above criticism or oversight regardless, and this show demonstrates that repeatedly. With the show, I see their attempts to evolve in the last season by exploring more cultural, modern technological and humanitarian related and relevant issues, and have noted that they are increasing the number of women writers and directors in addition to only the handful they had the first ten or so seasons as well as adding more BIPOC representation in storylines other than the black and brown terrorists. The decision to replace Pauley Perrette with Diona Reasonover was a great choice.
Regardless of my complaints, I do like the show and love the characters, even Gibbs. The problem with liking his character and any character on any of these type of shows is that you have to parse and compartmentalize liking him with his continued abuse of power, rule breaking, and often times coercive personality with the fact that when he breaks those laws and hurts someone or abuses anyone’s rights, he sets himself up as an example of all law enforcement and the exacting actions they take while also neglecting or denying to hold themselves accountable as a whole—this causes systemic problems, like what we’re experiencing and have been experiencing with American law enforcement. With his last case in which he was suspended indefinitely, he used excessive force on a man because the man allegedly drowned dogs; Gibbs tells you that he wasn’t sorry, he doesn’t regret it, and he would gladly do it again—all this while his team covers for him after he ordered them to tell the truth. This storyline made me wonder if it and he was throwing shade around a certain behind-the-scenes incident that caused a long-time character to quit the show. So, if he doesn’t regret anything he did, should he be reinstated? Nope, nope, nope and more nope. Problems like this will continue if we don’t hold law enforcement accountable, specifically removing qualified immunity protections and instituting overall law enforcement reform—and liking Gibbs on a personal level in no way changes my opinion about that and what he did and who he did it to. But will this be the conversation had? Probably not since Americans care more about dogs than they do about other people and think that defunding the police means getting rid of them totally—it doesn’t. Methinks none of these conversations are being had after watching Gibbs beat a man to a bloody pulp for drowning dogs, so maybe they should write that into the script? I doubt they will for the reasons above. The show does offer relevant and important storylines, but are viewers asking right the questions if they’re asking any questions at all?
I have a certain appreciation for shows that last for decades because they have a sociopolitical and cultural importance, even if they are problematic. I’m still waiting on whoever owns Knots Landing to release it digitally. As for this season of NCIS, I don’t watch a show until it has finished or dropped its entire season. We’ll see what that future holds.
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