NCIS is one of those rare shows that’s well enough made that it hardly ever has a genuinely bad episode. To be sure, a lack of ambition helps in this regard; the longer you throw, the easier it is to miss your target, after all. But the clip show episode from a couple of weeks had tremendous miss potential, and the the show still pulled it off by taking an especially unambitious form and actually getting ambitious with it. After that, I was pretty much convinced NCIS could do no wrong. And then they go and give us “Kill Switch,” which plays like it was written by a guy who read a cyberpunk novel once and hated it.
All the characters in NCIS are types, and it spends a lot of time (more time than most shows) making sure the audience remembers precisely which types they are. The writers have developed running gags for each character based on their types that show up at least once in every single episode. Tony likes movies, so half his dialog is composed of old movie quotes. Ziva is foreign, so she has trouble with American idioms. Gibbs is a gruff, father-knows-best type; characters ask him stuff and he just stares at them. Abby is unique in that she’s a cross-type: she’s a goth, but she’s also adorable. (Some, like me, would say too adorable.) She does something adorable in every episode. Ducky is old and learned, so he spouts historical facts nobody else cares about. And McGee is a computer geek, so he talks about computer stuff and Tony makes fun of him for it. (Tony is also kind of an asshole.) “Kill Screen” is a McGee episode, so I’ll give you one guess what it’s about.
Most of the episode is pretty bad, but not terrible. In the course of investigating the murder of the week, McGee meets an attractive blonde woman at the laser tag arena. (McGee loves laser tag, of course, because he’s a nerd and that’s the kind of thing nerds love.) I can’t remember this character’s name, so we’ll just call her Mary Sue, since this is her defining characteristic. McGee becomes smitten, and she does too, what with it being the whole point of her existence and all. They spend the rest of the episode flirting awkwardly while discussing MMO games, because they’re nerds and that’s how nerds flirt.
As it turns out, the killer is really looking for Mary Sue and just killed the original victim–Mary Sue’s ex-boyfriend–by accident. Mary Sue is really good at video games–because that’s the kind of thing nerds are good at–and recently reached the kill screen of a game, the title of which I also can’t remember, so we’ll just call it “Generic Shoot-Em-Up.” Unfortunately for Mary Sue and the victim, that kill screen contains a program designed to break down the Pentagon’s firewalls. And so someone now wants to kill Mary Sue because she knows too much … or something. Considering that she’s completely clueless about what she’s seen until someone tells her about it, it’s never entirely clear to me why she has to die. But regardless of why, someone’s definitely trying to kill her.
Around half-way through the episode, the team becomes convinced that someone is Crazy Beardo (yeah, I’m not great with guest character names), the programmer of “Generic Shoot-Em-Up.” Crazy Beardo is crazy, and his diaries are full of the insane, conspiratorial rantings of someone who has watched far too much Glenn Beck. It becomes clear that he created the kill screen program, but when the team goes to arrest him, they find that the real killer has already gotten to him.
As all this is going on, Deep Voice (played by Jason Beghe, putting his deep voice to good use), an internet security contractor employed by the DOD, has come into the NCIS office to investigate what appears to be some hacking into various government agencies. McGee is, of course, the hacker–because he’s a nerd and that’s the kind of thing nerds do–and he spends much of the episode worried about getting caught. Abby even starts up a legal fund for him in a giant jar, because the writers felt like that would be a sufficiently adorable thing for her to do. Long, not terribly interesting story short, the team figures out that the hacking thing is just a pretense for Deep Voice to gain access to the investigation, as he is the actual killer. He killed the victim and Beardo and tried to kill Mary Sue to prevent anyone from find out that he sucks at his job. But now everybody knows, because he sucks at murder too. At least he still has an awesome deep voice.
If the episode had wrapped up at this point, it would have been unmemorable, but ultimately still low-end mediocre. Most of the problems with the episode to this point are things that are inherent to the structure of the show, just done worse than usual. But it didn’t wrap up. Instead, it threw one more twist at us that really takes it into the forsaken land of terrible: Beardo had apparently set up the program to execute itself if ever he failed to enter the password into the system on any given day. Being dead, Beardo obviously misses a day and the program goes into action. For whatever reason, it’s up to NCIS to solve this problem. One would think the government would have actual computer professionals able to handle a crisis like this, but maybe Deep Voice was the only one. In which case, poor government planning there.
Anyway, the result is a thoroughly ridiculous climactic sequence, in which McGee shuts himself up in some never-before-seen room that has several computers and at least three giant, wall-sized computer screens. It looks like a rejected Tron set. Gibbs, meanwhile, goes back to Beardo’s lair, because that’s where the motherboard is or something. Beardo has evidently rigged his lair with deadly traps, which seems pretty inconvenient for Beardo himself, but I guess he knew his way around. McGee for some reason has access to the map of Beardo’s death maze (complete with little skulls-and-crossbones marking each of the traps) and proceeds to guide Gibbs through the labyrinth of death, only almost blowing him up once. When Gibbs finally reaches the central computer–with just moments to spare!–McGee tries to talk him through the process of shutting it down, but Gibbs doesn’t go for that nerd shit, so he just shoots the fuck out of it instead. You know, like a real man. The bullet that finally takes out the computer is one that goes through the monitor, because that’s how computers work and stuff.
It’s impossible to describe how poorly this final sequence plays out, but it’s impressively bad. There’s a moment when McGee actually says, “This isn’t a video game. No, wait … it IS a video game.” He actually says this. Out loud and everything.
More distressing than the ridiculousness of the climax, though, is the way McGee spends basically the entire episode getting repeatedly humiliated in what is ostensibly his showcase. He’s embarrassed when people recognize him at the laser tag arena. He’s nervous around pretty girls. He might go to prison for hacking into government databases. Even during the climax, when he’s supposedly in his element, he’s pretty much useless, mostly just getting in Gibbs’ way. And then in the coda, Tony has to make a date for him with Mary Sue, because he’s just too scared to do it himself, thus completing his victory/emasculation. This is not how a show should treat one of its main characters. But then again, he is a nerd.
- There’s just something about supercomputers that doesn’t really make for good television. A big part of the problem might be the difficulty in creating a fake computer that actually looks advanced. More often than not, they just end up looking cheesy, which is definitely how the computer portions of “Kill Screen” turned out. Other examples of terrible supercomputer episodes include Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “I Robot, You Jane” and two episodes of The X-Files, “Ghost in the Machine” and “First Person Shooter.” And those were great shows. It could be that this sort of thing is just difficult to pull off.
- The X-Files did manage to do at least one good cyberpunk episode in “Kill Switch,” which still mostly holds up.
- Speaking of The X-Files, every once in a while I’m reminded just how indebted the CBS-style procedural is to that show. This NCIS is obviously comparable to The X-Files’ cyberpunky excursions, and the CSI promos appeared to feature a mad scientist who reanimates corpses.
- One thing I will always respect about NCIS is its consistent portrayal of torture as an evil and shameful thing. In tonight’s episode, the victims were all tortured to death, and the killer was a former military interrogator. This is a very patriotic sort of show, with a conservative-leaning audience, so its stand against torture seems fairly significant.