Displaying items by tag: NCIS

Review: 'NCIS' - Gibbs Has Left The Building

12 October, 2021

Deciding when to end a long-running show is never an easy decision. Ideally, it's being done at a natural ending point in the lives of the characters. A moment that allows the audience to feel as if the story has come to a resolution that honors all of the seasons that have come before it. But when the long-running show is still successful in the ratings, then there is a tremendous amount of pressure to keep it going. To keep the crews employed, to give everyone a chance to cash a few more paychecks. From the standpoint of the network, if people still want to watch the show, what does it matter if it isn't operating at that same level it was back in season five or even season ten? If the audience is watching, they must be happy.

And while there is some truth to all of that, as a longtime fan of NCIS it has been disheartening to watch the show lose a lot of its special chemistry over the past few seasons. New cast members have come and gone - most of them never quite gelling with the DNA of the show. There has been a certain "throw a bunch of things against the wall" feel to the episodes, which only serves a painful reminder of what has changed on the show.

Tonight's episode is being billed as the final regular appearance by Mark Harmon's character Leroy Jethro Gibbs and while his exit is not a surprise, it's a near fatal blow for a show that has felt the absence of its original cast in recent years. Gibbs is the emotional center of the show, the glue that allows everything else to work in a coherent fashion. The parts are all there to pull off a reasonable procedural show without Gibbs. But no other character in the series has the ability to make the audience care about the characters. Harmon's acting throughout the series has been subtle and easy to ignore. But he is the primary reason why audiences care about the show in a way that they never have on other competing dramas.

At the same time, it's also been obvious over the past several seasons that it is a natural ending point for Gibbs. He's getting older, weary. The unnaturally youthful and spry Harmon has noticeably lost a step or two. In a better world, NCIS would end as it began - with Harmon.

Instead, the show has scrambled to build a post-Harmon cast and in the first three episodes of the current season, two characters have been added to the mix.  NCIS Special Agent Jessica Knight (Katrina Law) becomes a new member of the team after Agent Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham) exited at the end of last season. Knight had previously appeared in the two-episode season finale earlier this year, so she is a somewhat familiar character to the NCIS audience. The second addition to the mix is Gary Cole's FBI Special Agent Alden Parker and as much as I like Cole, his character feels as if it's fresh off the procedural character assembly line. Cranky to the point of being irritating? Check. But yet, he's an excellent agent? Designed to be disruptive to the NCIS team? Check.

This week's episode is the final chapter of the story arc that was introduced in the season premiere. Gibbs and his new friend Marcie Warren (played by Harmon's real-life wife Pam Dawber) had been chasing what they believed was a serial killer. Of course, it wasn't long before the entire NCIS team was involved, as well as the FBI. Cole's character is there to lead the FBI response and introduce him to the team and he argues with all of them. He might as well be wearing a t-shirt that reads "soon to be working at NCIS."

Gibbs and McGee are off to Naktok Bay, Alaska to try and prove the murders were related to opening of a copper mine. And an FBI team led by Parker is chasing them, armed with a warrant to arrest Gibbs. Because....well, the show needs a reason for Cole to stay in the picture. Hey, maybe Gibbs will end up in prison in some NCIS-style tribute to the Seinfeld series finale. That would be a twist no one would see coming!

Soon, Gibbs and McGee are on the hunt for a missing article which would supposedly prove the mine is a potential environmental disaster. It was written by Libby Alonak, one of the murder victims and when they meet with Libby's father, the show gets the chance to beat the "Gibbs continues to struggle with the murder of his wife and daughter" emotional beat directly into the audience's brainstem one last time. Gibbs and McGee are convinced the mine is at the center of the murders. Which doesn't seem a concern to the global giant Sonova, whose CEO travels to Alaska to do the ceremonial ribbon-cutting/gloating at the ground-breaking for the mine. 

Gibbs and McGee show up at the ceremony to speak with her and her response is the textbook arrogance you see when a procedural wants the audience to know that "this business leader is a very bad person." These are the scenes that grate the most in the show. There was a time when  NCIS was able to accomplish the same story beat without the scene feeling as if it could just easily be a part of an episode of FBI or S.W.A.T.

Back at headquarters, Medical Examiner Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) is set to examine the body of Libby Alonak and surprise, Dr. "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum) shows up for another one of his inexplicable appearances. He tells Palmer that Gibbs had asked him to do a psychological profile of Libby and there's a flashback to when Ducky last spoke with Gibbs. He showed up at his old friend's house as Gibbs was frantically packing to leave. Ducky tells Gibbs he's worried and Gibbs finally admits out loud to what he has been going through during the events of the past six months. And it sets up his eventual exit from the show in a way that might as well include a flashing "exit, stage left" sign.

"You're right, lately I've been searching," Gibbs says. "I don't know what I'm looking for. I know..being alone without the job was hard." 

"Then come back," replies Ducky.

"That's even harder."

Gibbs tells Ducky that he has to get to the airport and he unexpectedly hugs him. "Your are a great friend. I appreciate you more than you will ever know." And in the moment that follows, as the old friends quietly look at each other one last time, you see what has made NCIS so compelling over the years. Strong acting, well-defined, nuanced characters and the willingness to not overwrite the scenes. No "will I ever see you again?" comments. No need to explain every single emotion to the audience. All the viewers need to know is written on the faces of Mark Harmon and McCallum. Two veteran actors who are as good as anyone on television.

Back in the present, Dr. Mallard is examining the couple of personal effects found on the victim's body and discovers a QR code attached to the underside of Libby's watch. The QR code leads to a copy of the article about proposed copper mine and it claims that Sonova's own internal environmental impact report said the mine would have "unavoidable catastrophic consequences to the water and surrounding animal life." What!?! The obviously evil CEO was lying? I'm shocked. Well, not really.

Back at NCIS headquarters, it turns out that the primary source for Libby's expose was biologist Brian Stafford, who was one of the other murder victims. NCIS needs to find his original report to take down Sonova, so Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) asks Marcie to contact Stafford's wife and ask for his laptop. This gives Marcie the chance to ask the agent how Gibbs is doing. That whooshing sound means that it time for another flashback, this time it's Torres recalling when he drove Gibbs to the airport for his trip to Alaska. 

They joked about how Gibbs got his boat out the basement, they discussed how well Knight is fitting into the squad and then Gibbs asked Torres how he was doing. "You are a good agent. You've got instincts that don't come along often. More important, you are a good man. Do me a favor, though," Gibbs adds. "Don't let this job become all that there is. You take of you."

Back in the present, Torres lies to Marcie and reassures her that Gibbs is fine. Later at the lab, Kasie unlocks Stafford's laptop and finds his original impact report. And it's signed by Sonova CEO Sonia Eberhart.

As Gibbs and McGee head off to arrest Eberhart, FBI Agent Parker shows up to arrest Gibbs. McGee can't believe the agent had tracked them down and as Parker is putting the handcuffs on Gibbs, he reveals that Gibbs himself tipped off the FBI about his location. Of course, Gibbs and McGee convince Parker to wait to arrest Gibbs until after Eberhart is in custody. 

But even though NCIS can prove she buried the report, they can't prove she is connected to the murders. But Torres and Knight have a theory that Eberhart had an unknown partner. So to draw that person out, when Gibbs and McGee are set to arrest the CEO, Gibbs gets a call and he tells McGee the arrest is one hold because of "red tape." As soon as Eberhart gets into her car, she tries without success to call someone. It turns out that the car is being driven by Agent Parker, who used a cell phone jammer to block her call. Although it apparently works on satellite phones as well. But he does get to see who she tried to phone. 

Cut to Marcie's apartment, where she is speaking with Phil Hanover (John Hensley). She tells him that she's discovered the murders were all connected to a copper mine in Alaska. Oh, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see where this is headed. He asks what any of that has to do with the death of his wife. Marcie says there is no connection that she could find and then of course, Phil asks the "have you told any of this to the Feds yet?" question. Marcie tells him "no," and she might as well add "so it's safe to kill me."

Of course, Torres and Knight are there to stop him and they lay out the entire scheme for the audience in the world's longest example of laying out backstory in the midst of making an arrest. Phil owns a lot of land in Naktok Bay, Eberhart offered him millions for the land if he could make the mine's opponents disappear. And when his wife found out about the plan, he had her killed as well.

Back in the middle of rural Alaska, Gibbs and McGee get word of the arrests and you can tell it's time for the prelude to the big goodbye.

"How many cases do you think I've worked, huh!?" Gibbs asks McGee.

"In 25 years? At least a thousand, I'm sure, why?"

"Because what we did today, saving this land, may be the most meaningful one of all of them."

"We did something good here, didn't we?"

"You should be proud, Tim."

Gibbs then insists that McGee arrest him, reminding him that it's his duty. And so the handcuffs go back on and off they go.

McGee turns Gibbs over to Parker, who takes the handcuffs off of Gibbs. He tells them that he called and told his boss at the FBI that he wasn't going to the bureau's errand boy. His chief told him that Gibbs had been a rulebreaker for a long time and it was time that he finally paid the price. The agent says he called an old co-worker and asked about Gibbs. "Let's just say that he convinced me that Gibbs doesn't belong behind bars." Parker tells McGee that if he doesn't testify that Gibbs stole his car, the FBI won't have a case. And while he might lose his badge, he is doing what he believes is right. As Parker leaves the two and heads off, he reveals the name of the old co-worker he spoke with to vet Gibbs: Tobias Fornell. 

Gibbs returns to the boat owned by Libby's father, who thanks Gibbs for making sure he received wife daughter's body. The father tells Gibbs that he is having a traditional potlatch ceremony that evening . He also tells him it would be his great honor to present Gibbs with an old Springfield rifle that is a treasured possession. Gibbs tries to decline, but he's told that it is a tradition during potlatch to give away your personal wealth. Gibbs tells the father he has something for him as well. He has Libby's watch. "I noticed it was a man's watch," Gibbs says. "Is it your watch?"

He tells Gibbs that he gave it to his daughter the day she left their village. "She once said to me that this was the wrong mine at the wrong place," he tells Gibbs. "And to find out that she helped stop it and save our precious land. I've never been prouder to be her father."

Later, McGee and Gibbs are fly fishing in the lake and they spend some time talking. Gibbs talks about fishing with his father and he opens up a bit more than usual. One of the more interesting things about the past few seasons has been watching the relationship between these two men evolve from boss/employee to mentor/mentee to eventually friends. The plane arrives to take them home and you can see where this is headed.

At NCIS headquarters, Director Vance informs Torres, Knight and the audience about the latest developments. Parker was fired by his boss after not arresting Gibbs. Vance spoke with Gibbs and offered to give him his job back, but Gibbs declined. So when the show returns to the lake we know what's coming. Gibbs tells McGee that he is staying. Not going back to work, not going back home. He tells McGee he's not sure how long he's staying. "I'm thinking I don't have another boat left to build." 

McGee tries to talk him out of it, tries to figure out why he wants to stay. Gibbs can't articulate it precisely, but tells him "Whatever I'm feeling, this..this sense of peace. I have not had this since Shannon and Kelly died. And I'm not ready to let it go."

"I could not have hoped for anyone better to watch my back for the past 18 years than you, Tim," he tells McGee. They hug and Gibbs tells McGee that he loves him. "I love you, too," McGee replies as he begins to cry. 

"Promise me you are going to be okay," McGee says.

"I already am." 

The episode ends with McGee watching Gibbs fishing in the lake as he flies back home. And for all the clunkiness of the episode, the last couple of minutes are a reminder of why NCIS has been a TV staple for so many years. Mark Harmon is as gifted an actor as procedural television has ever produced. He is going to be missed and I have trouble imagining the show without him in it every season.

On the other hand, if he ever wants to return to television, I'd love to see him do a couple of made-for-television movies a year as an ex-NCIS agent who reluctantly agrees to solve some mystery or right some wrong in rural Alaska. 

Review: 'NCIS' 400th Episode

24 November, 2020

NCIS kicked off its 18th season last week and the episode was a reminder that as much as I love the show, it feels like a series that is contemplating its eventual ending.

I would argue that until season 14, there wasn't a more consistent procedural on television. The ensemble was tight, the writers knew the characters and how to gently build out the mythology of the ensemble. Mark Harmon's Leroy "Jethro" Gibbs has always been the creative and emotional center of the series. But Gibb's gruff and taciturn character meant that it was up the rest of the cast to fill in the emotional heart of the show. The result was an ensemble that fit together like a handmade Italian supercar. Every part working in conjunction with the other, every character driving the show forward. 

But the exit of Michael Weatherly (Anthony "Tony" DiNozzo) at the end of season 13 led to a cascade of changes that NCIS has never quite recovered from. David McCallum (Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) went to a part-time recurring character towards the end of the following season and Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto) left at the end of season 15. Leaving Harmon and Sean Murray's Timothy McGee as the only remaining characters from the early days of the show.

NCIS has attempted to rebuild the ensemble back in recent seasons with limited success. Jennifer Esposito (Alex Quinn) only lasted one season. Duane Henry (Clayton Reeves) was brought on full-time for seasons 14 and 15 and then killed off. Even the newer characters that have remained have become little more than ways to provide some exposition for the episode or give Gibbs and McGee someone to interact with on a regular basis. 

Emily Wickersham (Ellie Bishop) was brought in during season 11 to fill the place of the departed Cote de Pablo (Ziva David). But after an interesting debut, Bishop was eventually given a divorce and progressively given less to do each season. For the most part, she now just serves as a foil (and possible love interest) for Wilmer Valderrama's Nick Torres. Neither one of them are given much of a chance to do anything, except react to Gibbs and do a bit of investigation.

Mario Bello (Jacqueline "Jack" Sloane) was brought in during season 15 and the role appears to have been created to be a foil/possible love interest for Gibbs. And watching her character is a frustrating experience because you can tell the writers can't quite get Sloane to jell. Some episodes she does little more than come in, give Gibbs the stink eye and encourage him to talk about his feelings. Joe Spano (FBI Agent T.C. Fornell) has also been frequently used in recent seasons as a friend/sounding board for Gibbs, although to do that his character keeps getting involved in increasingly unlikely scenarios.

But a couple of things have worked very well in recent seasons. Diona Reasonover joined as Kasie Hines, replacing fan favorite Abby Sciuto. And it's a transition that has worked well. She doesn't generally have more than a scene or two in any episode, but she gets the job done and her character brings some much-needed youth to the cast. And as the rest of the ensemble has floundered at times, Gibbs and McGee have evolved into more of a father-son dynamic. Last season's pandemic-shortened season ended with Gibbs asking McGee to sit for awhile so he could share memories of his military service that he had never spoken about with anyone before. Their evolving relationship is often the best thing about NCIS in recent seasons.

And we're left with a show that really only works now when the episode directly involves Gibbs or somehow touches on some aspect of the Gibbs mythology. So given all of that, it makes sense that the 400th episode of NCIS would flashback forty years to tell a previously unknown story about Gibbs and Ducky.

A man is found dead in the NCIS basement and he is connected to a case that Gibbs was associated with back when he was still a young Marine headed off to sniper school. The present-day case doesn't amount to much, but it's really only there to give David McCallum a reason to return (always a welcome sight) and a way to set up the flashback portions of the episode. We get to see how Gibbs and Ducky first met, hear a bit more backstory about Gibbs and his future wife Shannon and even a reminder of how Gibbs was first introduced to the house he has now lived in for years. 

The flashback scenes are most of the reason to watch the episode and they are exceptionally well done. Sean Harmon and Adam Campbell are perfectly cast as young Gibbs and young Ducky and the parts of their backstory introduced in the episode deftly reveal some new facts about the duo for fans. In fact, while I don't think this episode was designed to be a back-door pilot, CBS should really consider signing them both to star in a "Young Gibbs" series. Which would be a great project for the upcoming Paramount+ streaming service.

At the 400-episode mark, it seems petty to complain that NCIS is in a holding action. But it sure feels that way. The series will likely last as long as Harmon wants it to and I hope that the way his character is being framed hints at some exit in the not-too-distant future. I still love NCIS. But sometimes you need to know when to let go of the things you love.