Don’t get me wrong, I love NCIS: Los Angeles. But I’m afraid it will never truly satisfy me because of its very nature: it’s a procedural. A network television procedural at that. No matter how wonderful the actors, writers, and producers, there are things we’ll never see on NCIS:LA simply due to the show’s DNA.
CSI. SVU. NCIS. Strict Formulas = Big Profits
An episode opens with a crime and ends with the bad guys either arrested or dead. In between, the main characters focus primarily on the case, with little time spent outside of work. Sound familiar? It’s not just a description of a typical NCIS:LA episode, but a time-honored television tradition called the police procedural. NCIS:LA’s predecessors go all the way back to Dragnet, and include classics like Columbo as well as a plethora of current shows, among them NCIS:LA’s new lead-in, Scorpion, not to mention the mothership and its newest spin-off.
Because a procedural has little continuing storyline from week to week, casual viewers can easily follow along with any random episode. That makes them perfect material for syndication, with its huge profit potential. NCIS is the most popular television show around the entire world. NCIS:LA signed the longest-ever (12 year) syndication deal, with cable’s USA Network, at a price tag of more than $2 million per episode.
There are aspects to the procedural that I enjoy, and NCIS:LA does them as well as or better than anyone. Its witty banter and bromance are second to none. The action is great: shoot-outs and car chases, along with the best explosions in TV history. There’s also the wonderful way the team serves as a surrogate family, a common characteristic on shows where we only see the characters on the job. Unfortunately though, there are also drawbacks to such structured storytelling.
The Procedural’s Opposite (and Its Competition)
In many ways, the opposite of a procedural is the serial. Serialized TV is all about the continuing storyline that carries over from one week to the next, the classic example being the soap opera. It also includes a growing number of crime dramas, such as Showtime’s Homeland, FX’s The Bridge and AMC’s Breaking Bad. These programs require a bigger commitment from the viewer to watch every week so they don’t fall behind. That means they don’t make the best syndicated programming (or profits).
But serials do offer storytelling advantages. For example, showrunners don’t need to solve the whole case in 44 minutes, so they have time to delve deeper into the private lives of the main characters. Imagine an episode like “Impact” where there was no plane crash to investigate, and instead we got 44 minutes of the team dealing with the aftermath of Siderov. Sure, there’d be no shoot-outs or explosions, but it would still be compelling television, allowing us to better understand- and care about- the characters.
Another advantage of serials is their often limited runs, with fewer than 24 episodes per season for less than the network-standard seven years, which keeps “filler” episodes to a minimum. It also gives showrunners more flexibility to kill off characters. Knowing your favorite character could die at any point instantly makes every shoot-out frightening. Anyone watching the season finale of HBO’s True Detective was genuinely on the edge of their seat over whether Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s characters would both make it to the end of their single-season run alive. By comparison, was anyone really worried about Callen and Sam getting safely out of that sub at the end of Season 5?
NCIS:LA did kill off Dom in Season 1, but that was because he wasn’t working out as a character. In contrast, The Wire famously killed off its most charismatic bad guy. Think about non-cop serials like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, where beloved characters can die at any moment. On the other hand, never mind, forget I mentioned this… I can’t bear the thought that Deeks might be taken away from us by a stray bullet!
The Network Television Factor
Being on network television instead of cable brings its own handicaps. Network censors (and federal decency regulations) impose limits on profane language and nudity. Now, I’m not saying you need these things in order to make good drama, but I am saying they make the drama feel more realistic. When the worst thing a character can say is “dammit” while bad guys are shooting at them- or torturing them- it just doesn’t ring true. It’s an especially difficult world to maintain when it’s so easily contrasted with the programming on even basic cable television, where characters can more fully express themselves in a way that sounds authentic. Which workplace sounds more true to life, the squad room on The Shield, or the OSP Mission?
OK, and yes, I do like the sexytimes. Typical though for much of American television and movies, the NCIS:LA showrunners seem far more comfortable depicting graphic violence, such as when a decapitation opens “The Frozen Lake” or a man’s head is cleaved by a machete in “Black Budget,” than they do showing characters expressing physical affection.
Then there’s the time limit imposed on network programs, which at most run one minute long. Squeezing in all the plot developments needed to solve a case from start to finish just doesn’t allow room for much more in 44 (or 45) minutes of storytelling. On the other hand, programs on basic cable often run up to 15 minutes long, just because the showrunners had some extra story to tell that week. Imagine the director’s cut of “Spoils of War” or “Ascension.” We might get a more fully fleshed out story, with additional details that fill gaps in the timeline or plot. But more importantly, we’d have time for scenes that are critical to the characters’ ongoing storylines (like the deleted flashback to “Recovery” in “Spoils of War”) or include emotional content not crucial to the plot (the deleted “Ascension” scene showing Deeks’ struggles in the hospital). These scenes add so much to our enjoyment of the episode but they seem to be the first ones cut in the name of exposition.
Still Room for Compelling Drama
Despite these disadvantages, there’s still plenty of room for NCIS:LA to continue to flourish. The procedural format doesn’t have to be a straightjacket. Here are a few things I’d love to see:
More Long-Running Story Arcs
Where NCIS:LA has succeeded in bucking its procedural constraints has been in story arcs that have spanned one or more seasons. Most obvious is Callen’s quest for identity that will run until the show’s final episode. But there have been other examples, such as with bad guys Janvier and Siderov. They were introduced in a single case-of-the-week but got away, only to return later to haunt our fearless team. Failing to catch the bad guy in a single episode still gave casual fans plenty of action, but also delivered a longer running storyline for more dedicated fans to enjoy.
More Character-Driven Stories
There’s a continuum in procedurals, from those that focus almost exclusively on the case (Law & Order) to those that operate with considerably more focus on character (Monk, White Collar, Justified). The casual fan may need the case-of-the-week structure, but we obsessed fans couldn’t care less about the plot. To us, it’s all about the characters we love.
Over the course of a season, NCIS:LA offers its share of character-driven episodes, where the case itself is tied to or personally affects one of the main characters (“Plan B,” “SEAL Hunter”). But there are many other episodes which, to us regular viewers, can feel like fillers, with the case taking center stage and only broken up by some witty banter.
It’s the character-driven episodes that we all remember, and enjoy the most. This seems to be the case even for the actors. In a recent interview, Eric Christian Olsen talked about “Praesidium’s” wonderfully emotional boatshed scene:
“I think you’re always itching to play those scenes, and I think the beauty of a show like ours, though, is unlike, you know, family dramas where this happens every single week, the backbone of the show, is because we’re inherently a show about NCIS and about all these crimes, and about these scenes that you get them once every seven episodes or so, you maybe get these juicy moments that are about characters, and they’re about the emotion of the characters. And so, yeah, we loved getting those, and it’s so fun to do them…”
ECO is smart to ensure his job security by talking about “the beauty” of only getting these emotional scenes three or four times a season. But the more NCIS:LA can feature scenes like this one that show us the hearts of the characters we love, the more it will rise above its procedural formula, and the more it might actually move its casual fans into the regular viewer category.
Maintain Suspense through Character-Based Drama
While we may not have true suspense over the main characters surviving a shoot-out or the bad guys’ latest plan to blow up Los Angeles, we can still have it over the characters’ emotional well-being. For example, for me “Spoils of War” was the single most suspenseful episode of NCIS:LA. It wasn’t because I thought the team might be killed on that hilltop, or Kensi might never be rescued. It was because I didn’t know how much of Deeks’ soul would be lost as he interrogated and then tortured the cleric. In both parts of “Blye, K,” we never really worried that Clairmont was going to kill Kensi or hurt her mom. We did worry about how she would be affected by the experience.
Episodes like these are one reason that much of Season 5 felt like a wasted opportunity to many fans, where Deeks’ (and Kensi’s) PTSD, as well as their romance, wasn’t explored as fully as it might have been. In episodes like “Spoils of War” or “Blye, K”, casual fans are still free to enjoy the action; they just don’t have the understanding of the full emotional impact on the characters that more dedicated fans, familiar with their backstory, get to enjoy.
One way to increase the frequency of such scenes and episodes is to do more two-part stories, like the “Blye, K” pair. There’s no reason to save such two-parters for the season finale/premiere. They give the writers time to both roll out the exposition for the case, and tell the story of its impact on the main characters. Imagine not just the director’s cut of “Spoils of War,” but an epic two-part rescue mission where all the plot holes and timeline questions are cleaned up, and we also have time to see additional emotional scenes from all the characters.
Advancement of the Romance
Speaking of romance, it’s certainly not unheard of for a procedural to have a strong romantic aspect; for an example one need look no further than ABC’s Castle, airing at the same time as NCIS:LA. The wonderful chemistry between Deeks and Kensi can be enjoyed by a casual fan watching a random episode, as well as by regular viewers. There’s no reason the Densi banter can’t always be a mainstay of the show. But there’s also no reason to keep them apart. Castle has managed to have both flirty chemistry and an adult relationship. And after all, the NCIS:LA writers chose to make the Deeks/Kensi work partnership, in the midst of this procedural, into something personal. They owe it to loyal fans to keep things moving along, and publicly so.
Embrace the 10 PM Time Slot
There’s no compelling reason to make the violence on NCIS:LA more graphic than it already is. But the current level of sexual content pales in comparison to many network programs, particularly those airing at 10pm. It’s pretty tame even for 8pm standards. Why not show these characters, who live such difficult lives of violence, enjoying some intimate human contact? I know it’s network TV, but this is the time slot that brought us naked shower scenes on NYPD Blue more than a decade ago. It is entirely within network standards to show us more than a single kiss.
The Top of My DVR List
Despite its shortcomings, NCIS:LA will remain at the top of my DVR list. Its ability to continue giving me the characters I love, and the love story I obsess over, will keep me coming back for more. And even if it’s not all I long to see, it’s enough to keep me entertained. I look forward to being continually frustrated for many years to come.
Want to Read More?
The Washington Post: The power of traditional TV: ‘NCIS’ and its older audience deliver gold for CBS
Deadline: Why TV Procedurals Also Rule The World
Variety: Why Serials Knocked Procedurals Out of the Emmy Race