By Elizabeth Langosy
How NCIS Earned My Love
I am terrified of seeing the following things on television: crime shows, horror movies, and anything that has imbeciles (cartoon or otherwise) smacking each other around.
It’s unfortunate, therefore, that I live in a 900-square-foot apartment with a husband who spends hours each night channel flipping. I retreat to my study on the other side of the house but can’t avoid going through the living room to reach our bedroom or the front door.
I can tell whether I’ll hate what’s on the screen by what I hear when I enter the room. If it’s the snarl of a bully or an agonized scream, I drive the poor guy crazy by rushing past, yelling “Turn down the sound!” as I shield my eyes from gruesome images of a woman being attacked with a machete, some macho kids torturing a weakling, or the moment when a boy looking for a stray softball finds a decaying corpse.
I can’t help it. I’m one of those people who has nightmares from traumatic things glimpsed on TV.
Other times, I hear a raucous voice and my husband’s chuckle, and I know he’s watching reruns of The Golden Girls, Seinfeld, or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Or the music swells—it’s a French or British film, the teary part, when the lover leaves for good (French, to cohabit with the former beloved’s sister; British, to war). Or he calls me in to see a familiar face in an unexpected role—which is how I was lured into watching NCIS, exactly the sort of show you’d expect me to hate.
“Look, honey, there’s your teenage crush. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. guy.”
I paused my headlong rush across the living room and reluctantly turned my gaze to the screen. There he was: David McCallum, the heartthrob whose mid-‘60s spy show inspired me and my teenage friends to create a top-secret fan club. David McCallum— formerly the enigmatic, adorable Russian spy Illya Kuryakin—was now four decades older and sawing into a corpse on my TV screen.
“But… isn’t this a crime show?” I asked, torn between the desire to bolt and the magnetic attraction of the slightly jowly but still dashing man now launching into a genial conversation (one-sided, of course) with the cadaver on the table in front of him.
It was, in fact. NCIS is a long-running CBS series about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, an actual government agency with the following purpose (as stated on the U.S. Navy website):
The NCIS mission is to investigate and defeat criminal, terrorist, and foreign intelligence threats to the United States Navy and Marine Corps, wherever they operate, ashore or afloat.”
Translation of “investigate and defeat”: battle the bad guys, with violent means if necessary, and cut into a lot of cadavers in search of clues. But accompanying these standard crime-show elements is an extremely likeable cast of characters, each with distinctive quirks and a fascinating backstory—as I learned when I unexpectedly found myself glued to the screen that fateful night.
The McCallum character, a medical examiner named Donald “Ducky” Mallard, is a seasoned Scotsman with a propensity for anecdotes—personal, historical, and scientific. Ducky believes he can learn about the crime victims not just from their autopsies but also by talking to them. When asked about these singular conversations (“South by Southwest,” Season 6, Episode 18), he explains:
Their bodies tell me a great deal. It helps to reciprocate.”
Ducky lives in a magnificent home with his elderly mother, who’s in the early stages of dementia in the first few seasons of the show. When her day nurse fails to arrive one morning (“Untouchable,” Season 3, Episode 20), she accompanies Ducky to work.
After Mrs. Mallard tries to pour herself a drink from one of the beakers of laboratory chemicals, Ducky asks another memorable NCIS character, Abby Sciuto, to help him look after her. Abby, played by Pauley Perette, is NCIS’s forensic scientist and the most warmhearted member of the team. She’s also a goth who sleeps in a coffin, wears fabulous clothing combinations, and is addicted to the fictitious high-caffeine beverage Caf-Pow.
Without missing a beat, Abby leads Mrs. Mallard away from the beakers with the following exchange:
Mrs. Mallard, would you like to see my mass spectrometer?”
“What a charming young lady. Of course I would, my dear. What is a mass speedometer? Does it move very fast?”
Okay, I admit it: the witty interactions and eccentric traits of these and other NCIS characters hooked me. I’ve always loved TV mysteries (especially the atmospheric British sort) but hated the seemingly gratuitous gore and emotional anguish of crime shows. Now, though, I see the NCIS crime and battle scenes as integral parts of complex stories, rather than as the atrocities they appeared to be when glimpsed in passing. As for the autopsy scenes, close examination reveals that the bodies are superbly constructed fakes and thus no threat to my squeamish nature—or so I tell myself.
Soon enough, I found myself looking online for bargain prices on NCIS DVDs. Then Amazon began sending me messages after I purchased each season, offering me a special price on the next season “for today only.” And that is how I came to own all seven seasons of NCIS. (Season eight won’t be released until August, but of course Amazon has already made me a prerelease half-price offer.)
Does this mean I now watch crime shows and horror movies with impunity, free at last from fear and loathing? Nope. Other than with NCIS, I still have a deep terror of violence, gore, and things that go bump in the night.
Many evenings, you’ll still find me scurrying through the living room, blocking my ears and avoiding a glimpse of the TV screen. But on other nights, my husband and I are sitting together, happily working our way through seven seasons of NCIS.
Elizabeth Langosy is executive editor of Talking Writing.
You may have guessed that Ducky and Abby are her favorite NCIS characters. She’d love to have a cup of tea (or Caf-Pow) with the two of them—but not in the autopsy room.