Just How Real is the Reel NCIS?
By Samantha L. Quigley
Got a dead Marine. Grab your gear.”
It’s the Gibbs catchphrase heard around the world, but it’s not part of the lexicon in the beige halls of the real Naval Criminal Investigative Service headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, which provides oversight for the nearly 150 global NCIS locations.
“It is entertainment,” MaryAnn Cummings, NCIS communications director and retired Army colonel, said of the hit television franchise bearing the agency’s name. “It’s the Hollywood version.”
The shows are a composite of real life, not documentaries. While Hollywood does intersect with its real-world counterpart in some ways, there are differences, including the types of crimes the real NCIS—not to be confused with the reel “NCIS”—covers and its role in an investigation.
The real agents do a job equivalent to civilian detectives, but with a focus on the Navy and Marine Corps. Their mission—far broader than the TV shows suggest—includes general and economic crimes, counterterrorism, counterintelligence and crime prevention and being ready to respond at a moment’s notice if there’s a tie to the Navy or Marine Corps.
“We’re usually not the guys that arrive first on the scene,” said Cummings, a West Point graduate who served as a Provost Marshall and completed two combat tours to Iraq. “That would be either your local police department, or if it’s on post … the Navy police.”
On the show, there are often struggles over jurisdiction, which makes things more entertaining. Ed Buice, an NCIS public affairs officer, said that’s not real life. The real agents work closely with other military and civilian agencies, but good relationships and paperwork—a large part of the job—just aren’t entertaining, he added.
The shows’ credibility has made it a global sensation and been a positive for the real agency that spent a lot of time explaining its mission before “NCIS’” 2003 debut.
“If you look at the first actual episode, it shows Gibbs at the airport trying to get on a plane and he’s carrying a weapon. He’s trying to explain who NCIS is and they’re like, ‘Who are you guys?’” Cummings said, adding that scenario actually happened to a former director.
With so much global visibility and the NCIS brand at stake, Cummings regularly interacts with the cast and crew.
“When we come into a situation and we say we’re NCIS, they’re immediately going to think of the television shows, so we have a vested interest in making sure the television shows maintains a certain credibility and a certain accuracy when we can,” she said.
“Theirs is a moneymaking business. I completely understand and support it.” Because of that, she doesn’t often request changes, but when she does, producers listen and work to resolve the issue.
“The TV show … doesn’t have to listen to me when I call up and say, ‘That’s not helpful in terms of getting a message out about what we do,’” she said. “I think they choose to because they find the partnership beneficial and they … are committed to doing the right thing.”
So how are the TV franchise and the real-life agency similar?
“I think on both sides … you see teams of dedicated, hard-working people trying to do their best,” Cummings said. “You’ve got a lot of individuals who work very hard to do the right thing every single day.”
And it all comes back to family.
“Much like the military unit becomes a family … NCIS is a family,” Cummings said. Viewers have embraced that sense of family with the “NCIS” characters. While fans might be a little uncomfortable with what seems like inappropriately timed humor, it’s how some families cope with stress. It’s also real and necessary, she said.
“To a certain extent, you have to have a coping mechanism and that’s where the humor comes in. … That’s how you cope with it, because you don’t want to fall apart.”
One last spoiler alert for “NCIS” fans. What you’re about to read might help you on a “Jeopardy!” appearance, but it shouldn’t shatter your illusion that the reel “NCIS” is, in some way, well … real.
There is no Ducky, per se, or an “Abby in the labby,” said Buice, referring to the original show’s medical examiner and forensic scientist, respectively. While there used to be Abby equivalents when the show started, they’ve been consolidated into the Army’s lab. Though there’s never been a medical examiner, there are folks who handle dead bodies, but they don’t conduct autopsies.
And “Gibbsing” someone—Gibbs’ affectionate slap on the back of the head—could actually land the aggressor in hot water at the real NCIS, where it would be considered assault.
“That’s one of those entertainment things that everybody chuckles at,” Cummings said. “There are some things that we go, ‘OK, in the interest of entertainment, we’ll give you that.’ ”
—Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol magazine. 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.
Stories in this Series
Jan 19, 2016
TV Hit 'NCIS' Shines a Positive Light on the Military
"NCIS" Executive Producer Gary Glasberg says tackling serious subjects allows the cast and crew to humanize complex military issues and gives viewers something to relate to. He also says the show’s relationship with the military and the real-life NCIS “comes in handy.”