NCIS. Nobody knew who NCIS was, except NCIS agents and some people in the Navy and Marine Corps. They have since become an agency that’s known by everyone. And envied by the FBI and other agencies because of their exposure in this show. They are very, very good. They are exactly as portrayed, a small unit, exceedingly elite and always willing to go that extra mile. NCIS is special.
— Don Bellisario, commentary, “Yankee White”
It was only a few weeks ago that the third season of NCIS sloped off into the Mexican sunset, leaving all kinds of important questions unresolved. So what better time for Paramount to release NCIS: The Complete First Season? While this six-disc box set can’t hope to provide answers to other, ongoing questions (does Cote de Pablo have the cutest little widow’s peak on primetime TV? Is Pauley Perrette the most stalked actress in Hollywood?), it helps to fill the long summer void. It also provides plenty of insight into the roots of this most enjoyable of crime shows.
Unfortunately, this collection can’t include the double-episode pilot that screened as part of producer Bellisario’s previous series, JAG, so it begins instead with the first episode of the series proper, “Yankee White”. While the plot is just so much complex and unfeasible chaff, it’s set, for the most part, on Air Force One, so the opportunities for humour abound. And humour is important to NCIS.
Indeed, just as it introduces the main NCIS characters, “Yankee White” also lays out the blueprint for the humour that will typify the show. Comedian Steve Bridges gives an amusing George W. Bush, complete with barbecue fetish, and the antics of Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and Donald “Duckie” Mallard (David McCallum) as they take souvenir shots of themselves behind the President’s desk with a crime scene camera are genuinely hilarious. But the classic NCIS running jokes have to do with the public’s ignorance of its existence, as well as the acronym confusion that equates “NCIS” with “CSI”, classic movies, and the collected works of Donald P. Bellisario. All of this gets an early outing during “Yankee White”. Best of the lot, for my money, are the continuing references to the Harrison Ford movie, Air Force One.
Every time Secret Service Agent Caitlin Todd (played by Sasha Alexander and destined to become an NCIS staffer by the end of the episode) tries to tell Gibbs (Mark Harmon) that she can’t tell him anything about the plane because it’s all super secret classified information, he counters by telling her that he’s already seen it all in Air Force One anyway. At several points in the episode, both Gibbs and DiNozzo make a point of reminding Todd that Air Force One seems exactly like the plane in the movie. This is funny in itself, especially when Gibbs uses his knowledge of the movie to prevent an assassination attempt on the President, but the joke behind the joke is that NCIS did indeed use the very same prop plane that was used in the movie.
In the second episode, “Hung Out to Dry”, the humour expands. Presumably as an homage to a favourite horror movie cliché, a young couple are “parked” and squabbling in time-honoured fashion when a parachuting marine plummets straight through the roof of their car and promptly dies. It’s NCIS’ job to find out why his parachute didn’t open. Other episodes include adventures with crystal meth on an aircraft carrier, an environmentally-motivated saboteur aboard a nuclear submarine, and a whole host of mysterious deaths involving naval personnel. But none of this is very important. As Bellisario himself says during the additional mini-documentaries “NCIS: Creating Series One”:
It’s not about forensics, it’s not about solving the crime, as much as it’s about how this family of people works together. The humour they have, and a twist… It’s a show about what happens in the cracks. It’s not about going from A to B to C. It’s about what they’re doing while they’re going from A to B to C that makes it so interesting and so much fun.
NCIS: The Complete First Season includes two further mini-documentaries entitled “Building the Team” and “Defining the Look”. All three are rich with detail. “Building the Team”, in particular, reveals some fan-pleasing details about Bellisario’s casting choices: Weatherly got his role over dinner in Sydney with the entire Bellisario family, Harmon on the strength of his performance as Agent Donovan in The West Wing. The combined effect of all three is to make it clear that all involved in the show appreciate Bellisario’s method of making TV.
Frankly, it’s a good job that Bellisario has such a keen understanding of the elements that make NCIS a joy to watch, because his plots are quite the weakest thing about the show: all B-movie silliness or adaptations of Agatha Christie puzzles from the 1930s. His cast, dialogue, and wild collection of jokes, in-jokes, and meta-jokes, however? These are such stuff as dreams are made of.