TV Hit 'NCIS' Shines a Positive Light on the Military
By Samantha L. Quigley
They laugh. They cry. They take care of each other. They learn Gibbs’ rules, like, “You Don’t Waste Good.” And they do it all while kicking bad guy—and girl—butt, surviving the plague, battling personal demons and anything else the writers dream up.
They’re TV’s original “NCIS” agents and viewers have a deep-seated love for these fictitious feds. Gibbs, Tony, McGee, Abby, Ducky, Bishop and Jimmy—also known as Autopsy Gremlin—are family. There have been others who have come and gone. They’re still family.
“I think that at the end of the day, [viewers] connect with our show because they connect with our characters,” “NCIS” Executive Producer Gary Glasberg said. “I know that people really … feel as if they know them. They’re very much a family and we like to be part of their family.”
But that’s only half the equation.
“To then take that family and … ground it in the military, then make that real and accessible to viewers who don’t come from military backgrounds … I think that by basing a lot of our storylines in real-world circumstances that it’s certainly something that people connect with.”
Topics like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and family struggles can bridge a gap and make the military drama more relatable. Glasberg said tackling serious subjects allows the cast and crew to humanize the issues and gives viewers something they can relate to. He also said the show’s relationship with the military and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service “comes in handy.”
The writers work closely with the Pentagon’s entertainment media officers, as well as the Navy, Marine Corps and the real-life NCIS. A handful of individuals regularly read scripts to keep things as authentic as possible.
“We’re in constant communication and constantly discussing and adjusting. I’m incredibly proud of those relationships,” Glasberg said. One of those military relationships—the one with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus—makes him especially proud.
While the cast and crew love having him on the set, Mabus also has provided invaluable insight into topics important to the Navy and Marine Corps, Glasberg said. “I’m fortunate enough to speak with [him] a couple of times a year and it’s really been a lovely relationship.”
Mabus isn’t just a fan, though. He’s been part of the “NCIS” family since his first cameo in 2009. He played an agent—the role of SecNav was already filled.
“He did a really good job. They came in and said that he’s going to do a line,” actor Mark Harmon told Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa on a November 2009 episode of “Live!” “He came in with a lot of people and just ingratiated himself to everybody very quickly, took pictures with all the crew, gets the whole team effort of what this show is.”
Harmon plays Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a former Marine gunnery sergeant who had a remarkable career as a sniper.
Mabus isn’t the only member of the military community that’s offered feedback through the past 12 seasons—season 13 started in September. Glasberg said they hear from the military community all the time and get a chance to interact with sailors and Marines when they visit military installations.
“It’s really helpful and beneficial to hear from service members who are fans of the show … and we’re thrilled when we actually get some feedback from them,” he said. The comments they get aren’t all that surprising. Most go back to that feeling of family.
“I hate to keep going back to the same thing, but there’s a comfort level in spending time with our team,” Glasberg said. “The amazing thing is the stories that we’ve heard about service members who’ll go out in the field on patrol, come back after a difficult day and then settle in with a DVD.
“That makes us really happy. To hear that a service member is dedicating themselves all day long, for weeks and months at a time, protecting our country and then is spending some time watching “NCIS” is really special and I know it brings a smile to a lot of crew members’ and cast members’ faces.”
So, if service members aren’t criticizing the show over military inaccuracies that have plagued similar programs, does that mean the show has figured that part out? For the most part, the answer is yes, but it’s wasn’t easy.
The actors and writers are committed to learning about the military and about NCIS, including taking what Glasberg calls field trips that allow them to observe the day-to-day lives they portray on the show. That motivated David McCallum, who plays “NCIS” Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, to work with Lou Eliopulos, a forensic specialist in charge of the Office of Forensic Support at the real-life NCIS.
“He was very much my mentor in the beginning. Then I worked with Craig Harvey, who is the Los Angeles coroner,” McCallum said. “He was good enough to arrange for me to actually be behind the glass doing an autopsy—not touching anything, but actually witnessing it firsthand, which is immensely useful.”
That’s proved true every time he’s been stopped by a pathologist on the street.
“They thank me for getting it as close as possible to the real thing,” he said. “I try really hard to get it so it’s correct. The last ‘autopsy’ I did took two hours. Our whole show is only 43 minutes, so you have to cut a few corners.”
With no military in his background, Glasberg, who also serves as a writer for the show, gave himself a crash course in the beginning, but said everything goes back to the show’s creator, Donald Bellisario.
“Don is a Marine, retired now, of course, but he comes from a military background,” he said. “When the show started—understanding the connection to NCIS—all of our actors have been very aggressive and involved in learning as much as possible about the military—about the Navy, the Marine Corps.
“We also have consultants. We have a gentleman named Leon Carroll, who is a retired NCIS agent who’s on set every day.”
Carroll, also a former Marine, told the Chicago Tribune he sits with the writers and advises on wording and actions to help them make the show as authentic as possible.
So, the show has great actors and writers who go the extra mile to get it right, but where do the stories come from? Glasberg said the writers watch current events and keep up with military news, but that doesn’t mean they follow the “Law & Order” model.
“All the writers try to be as conscious of what’s happening in the real world as possible,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories that you’re seeing are ripped-from-the-headlines storylines, but very often a seed will get planted. We’ll read a specific sentence or something that will stay with us or make us ask questions, and those are the things that ultimately turn into the best stories.”
Bellisario’s military TV program “JAG” gave viewers a glimpse into the life of military lawyers, so it was a bit odd that in two crossover episodes, which served as the “NCIS” pilot, saw the team of agents investigating one of “JAG’s” own for murder.
When the first season kicked off in fall 2003, the “NCIS” cast already seemed comfortable with each other. Now, 13 seasons later, McCallum, who is supportive of the Marine Corps in honor of his father-in-law who served in the South Pacific in World War II, said “family” is the right label.
“We’ve been together for 13 years … and during that time, people have gotten married [and] there are lots of children that didn’t exist at the beginning,” he said. “It really is a family, and the crew is the same. The crew was together on “JAG,” so that was 10 years. … So a lot of this crew has been together for 23 years. That’s family.”
As “JAG” sailed off under fair winds and following seas in 2005, 10 years after its debut, “NCIS” had three seasons under its belt and many fans simply shifted their loyalties from one show to the other. But what makes them keep coming back season after season?
Traditionally, military-themed programs have done well. “M*A*S*H,” “Gomer Pyle,” “U.S.M.C.” and “China Beach” each made their marks and recent shows like “The Unit” and “The Last Ship” have developed loyal followings.
In “NCIS’” earlier seasons, current events piqued America’s interest in the military. Many Americans had never experienced the United States in armed conflict and this military-themed procedural provided a limited, but intriguing insight into the armed forces’ inner workings. Even with less national attention focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, viewer interest remains high.
“Over the now 13 seasons of the show … military involvement for our country has shifted and changed quite a bit,” Glasberg said. “With a show like ours, with the cases that the real NCIS is involved with … there’s no shortage of storytelling. The ideas continue to flow and really, at the end of the day, people are watching our show because they love these characters. As long as the characters continue to evolve, we’ll make sure there are cases for them to solve.
“I’m extraordinarily appreciative and grateful for what the military provides us and, in theory, hopefully what we give back.”
—This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.