In the best episodes of NCIS, the plot is all but incidental.
My parents raised a gentleman, and yours raised a killer.
-- McGee (Sean Murray) to Ziva (Cote De Pablo)
In the best episodes of NCIS, the plot and locations are all but incidental. No one really cares that a show set in Washington, D.C. is so obviously shot in Los Angeles, and viewers pretend not to notice the paper-thin plots in return for their weekly date with some of the most rewarding characters on TV. Unfortunately, last season invested too much of its good-will equity in an ungainly continuing storyline and a succession of inept characterisations. At a time when arcing narratives tend to spell doom, you'd think The Powers That Be would have clung like gleeful little limpets to NCIS' ability to prosper without plotting. Not so.
Thankfully, last week's Season Five premiere took a chainsaw to Four's ugly baggage, sending tacky souvenirs and dirty laundry flying everywhere. My theory is that the nasty sticky mess of last year's final episodes led to the removal of NCIS creator and executive producer Donald Bellisario, and the elevation of longtime co-executive producer Chas. Floyd Johnson and former head writer Shane Brennan. Mark Harmon's comments to the press suggest he'll be happier with the new regime, and though the premiere struggled with an abundance of content, it looks like viewers have every reason to celebrate too.
The fourth season was full of outlandish secrets revealed, none worth its screen-time. The most annoying underpinned the season: Jenny Shepard's (Lauren Holly) unprofessional obsession with a French arms dealer with an unfortunate nom de guerre, and Tony's (Michael Weatherly) extended undercover operation. The Madame-Director-with-an-Electra-complex storyline was impenetrable, tedious, and irritating; the only pleasure it offered was the spectacle of La Grenouille (Armand Assante) hopping from accent to accent.
By the end of this season's premiere, La Grenouille was dead, shot in the head by agents of La Francophonie; Tony's cover had been blown by Semtex; his Secret Love, La Grenouille's daughter, had vanished; a bad man from the CIA had targeted Jenny; and Abby (Pauley Perrette) had received less than 90 seconds screen-time. Well, as Vilfredo "Meat Loaf" Pareto once sang, four out of five ain't bad.
I feel the quality of each episode of NCIS is best measured as a factor of Abby's number of lines, the amount of goth leg she gets to show, and the number of laugh-out-loud jokes. The premiere scored low on all three elements, but made up for it with its ruthless dispatching of last year's wardrobe and a skit in which Tony (briefly believed dead) realised that his colleagues had been helping themselves to his "treasures." The money shot was when he caught Ducky (David McCallum) trying to sneak back a Mighty Mouse stapler. Nothing was ever said to explain whether Tony's friends were collecting mementoes of a lost loved one or merely looting. And when all's said and done, it doesn't really matter because this is NCIS, and that's how they roll.
Hopefully this often excellent show will quickly find its way back to what it does best. It also has to sort out some loose threads: Who killed La Grenouille? Where is Jeanne the Tadpole? What will the CIA do about the loss of their pet arms dealer? And what really happened to Jenny's father? It's my hope that Langley continues its assault on Jenny and takes the bitch all the way down. Stat. Her vendetta against La Grenouille was unbalanced, she threw away an opportunity to "fight terrorism" for purely personal reasons, she placed her own people in deadly peril, and her key staff know all about it.
If that wasn't bad enough, this head of a federal law enforcement agency has no concept of personal security. In the last two episodes, her private home has been broken into three times, by La Grenouille, Gibbs (Mark Harmon), and person or persons unknown. Time for an ass-plate interface. Otherwise, NCIS may never break free from its Season Four torpor.