The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan has pinpointed TV’s biggest challenge, creating drama out of humans’ propensity to inhabit equally ”the spatiotemporal world of bodies and things, and the online world of information and pixels.” Only one drama surmounts this challenge for her, Fox’s long-running 24. Of the multiple speaker-phone calls that drive the action, she writes, “When consequential words come from far off into a room of you and your colleagues, do you look at the phone, the middle distance, others in the room with you? This is a director’s call, and the choices in 24 make high drama of the minor eye movements and hand movements of digital experience.”
NCIS: Los Angeles fails to heed this basic lesson. Instead, in the first two episodes, the cast lined up in a murky room and gazed solemnly ahead at projected images, as if the secrets of the universe were about to be revealed. Of course, all that appeared were blurry digital images that apparently conveyed essential information. No one in that room, including Special Agent “G” Callan (Chris O’Donnell) and Special Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), reacted.
Glacial pacing and soap-opera-style shooting dog this NCIS spin-off, set in the service’s Los Angeles Office of Special Projects, which supposedly battles the toughest threats to national security with deep undercover and the newest technology. While the original NCIS never expends much energy on plausible or demanding plots, its writers do tweak the comic potential of each character sufficiently to generate non-objectionable family viewing. But the characters of NCIS: Los Angeles take themselves very seriously indeed. Even the goofball-on-the-team ploy misfires: psychologist Nate Getz (Peter Cambor) is so unfunny and socially gauche that he functions more like an unwelcome psychopath than a helpful doctor.
In this desert of the inept, LL Cool J and the ever-charismatic Linda Hunt appear like creatures from another, better universe, even when trapped in the direst sequences. Hunt’s character, Hetty Lange, emerged in the premiere as a cross between James Bond’s Q and a fraternity den mother. She might also be a boss or a manager, but even by the second episode, her status was still unclear. One moment she was dishing out new tech toys to Callan, and in the next she was picking out clothes to sharpen his image. Hunt delivered her dialogue as if it were Shakespeare, but the prevailing emotion her performance engendered was embarrassment for the rest of the cast, who simply cannot match her. She even injected a modicum of dignity into the premiere episode’s bathetic close. After Callan refused to reveal his first name, told Hanna that he never received a birthday card, and admitted that he is a homeless orphan, he bunked down on the office sofa. Fighting enough soft focus to fuel a porn film, Hunt delicately arranged a blanket over the sleeping agent and stole off camera.
Although LL Cool J cannot match Hunt’s panache, he adds a zing to Sam absent from the remaining characters. In recent years, television has rarely favored physical grace in its male stars, plumping instead for edgy bad-boy glamour or redeemable nerdiness. But LL Cool J strolls across the set as if he really were a peak-of-fitness ex-SEAL ready for undercover at a moment’s notice. In the first episode’s risible closing action sequence, Callan managed to distract not only the man with the gun to his head, but also the two goons bracketing Hanna, by the hoary ruse of pretending to take a cell phone call. While O’Donnell read his lines, LL Cool J made the ensuing fight look nearly elegant. Yet even his buff body in a wet suit couldn’t save the ending of the second episode. The shot of Hanna bursting up from a golf course water trap in full scuba gear to mow down the bad guys seemed to have strayed from a lost episode of Saturday Night Live.
From opening credits to closing clichés, NCIS: Los Angeles perpetuates the dominance of men as protagonists in primetime action drama, with women falling into the traditional generic slots: one statutory female agent, one quirky girl (see also: Abby Sciuto), and one female boss. NCIS: Los Angeles fills the latter two slots with Lange, thus freeing space for more testosterone and male bonding. In Donald Bellasario’s world, women weep while men play.
Going into its third episode, NCIS: Los Angeles recalls the kind of situation in which one of Bellesario’s ex-military protagonists (say, Harm from JAG) would give the bad guy a gun and leave him alone to do the decent thing. Perhaps CBS will perform the same honorable service and pull the plug before the show’s humiliations leave participants perpetually unemployable. One could watch NCIS: Los Angeles. But one could also watch paint dry with far less pain and no less gain.