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Posts Tagged ‘NCIS’

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.

Loose ends:

  • 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.
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It is not without a certain amount of shame that I confess the following: I kind of like clip shows. I’m sort of a sucker for early-season nostalgia, and if nothing else, clip shows have that in spades.

This is not to say that I’m immune to the usual fan complaints, however. Clip shows tend to recycle largely random old clips with only a very thin plot thread connecting them. They’re often inserted awkwardly into the season with no warning, and thus fans feel cheated when they get only a small amount of generally subpar new material surrounded by a bunch of stuff they’ve already seen. (Clip shows fare especially poorly now because fans have access to all of that old material all the time.) But the biggest problem with clip shows is that they’re usually just lazy, with the people making the show having just as little interest in the episode as the fans.

This makes some sense given that the only reason clip shows exist in the first place is because some executive somewhere realized they were a good way to save money on production costs. But the same could be said about bottle shows, and as Community and Breaking Bad have recently shown, those can make for some terrific episodes. There’s no reason the same can’t be true of clip shows, and last week’s NCIS basically proves as much.

“A Man Walks Into a Bar…” is maybe more than anything else indicative of the supreme confidence NCIS is working with right now. This confidence is unusual enough in any series, let alone a series in its eighth season. Most shows by this point in their run are well into their decline stage. And when a show this old does a clip show, it usually doesn’t go over particularly well. (The Office used one towards the end of last season, for example, to disastrous results.) And “A Man Walks Into a Bar” definitely feels like an old show using a clip show. But the difference between this episode and so many other clip shows is that the writers clearly took the narrative connecting the clips seriously and selected the clips specifically for that narrative. That is to say, the episode is actually about something.

The episode’s conceit (all clip shows need a conceit) is that a psychiatrist has come into NCIS to examine our Elite Team of Crime-Solving Professionals. So far, so nothing–any clip show could start this way. But in an unlikely coincidence, the psychiatrist assigned to the unit also happens to be the sister of an NCIS character who was killed in the line of duty way back at the end of season three. This is what makes the episode work.

All clip shows are ostensibly about characterization. By looking at old clips, we see characters the way they used to be and–if executed decently–how they came to be the characters they are now in an abbreviated fashion. It’s part of the reason I like most clip shows, even the lazy ones. “A Man Walks Into a Bar” isn’t any different from most clip shows in this regard.

What sets the episode apart is the way it grounds all of this standard clip show stuff in the central tragedy of Kate’s death. Every clip and every intimation of character evolution is set against that backdrop. Additionally, in dealing with Kate’s death, the writers have taken the opportunity to clearly lay out and close out one of the show’s longest continuing storylines. Put all of this together and what you end up with is a clip show that acts as a kind of mythology episode, which is a pretty brilliant way to use a clip show.

Through the clips, the episode reconstructs the character of Kate. We see how she came to work at NCIS. We see what her relationships with the various characters were like. We see how those relationships evolved over time. We see the fairly shocking way she died. We see how all the characters reacted in the immediate aftermath of her death. We see how her killer was brought to justice. And finally we see how all the characters have dealt with her loss in the intervening years.

Kate’s character arc is essentially wrapped up through her sister, Rachel, who falls asleep in the NCIS office after she thinks everyone has gone home. Gibbs finds her and takes her back to his house, where he stands her in the exact spot her sister’s murderer was himself killed. And he tells her–and us–that this is what closure feels like. And it is.

But while the arc is closed out, the show itself of course goes on. The episode is acutely aware of this. While it fails to start any new plot threads, it takes the time to imbue the end of the episode with a certain sense of dread, hinting at some sort of vague, potentially internal threat to the team down road.  The episode title is taken from the old riddle about a man walking into a bar and asking for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a shotgun. The man thanks the bartender and leaves a tip. Turns out the man had the hiccups. Rachel tells Gibbs it’s all about reactions. Later, in her evaluation letter to Vance, she expresses concern that the team works too hard and suppresses too much. While it might be working for now, it might catch up to them in the end.

Interestingly, the threat that’s been hinted over the last few episodes is the rather meta notion that while the show goes on for now, it will come to an end at some point. Within the show itself, this plays out as concern on the part of various team members that the team has been together an awfully long time now and it really wouldn’t be surprising if people started moving on. The episode ends with a montage that–again, in a very vague sort of way–foreshadows what might be to come for the characters as the show continues or even after it ends. This foreshadowing doesn’t really have anything to do with plot, but is instead about character arcs, which is for the most part how serialization works on CBS-style procedurals. It just suggests how the characters might react to potential plot events in the future.

One of the effects of all of this is that it imbues all the standalone episodes that came before and will come after with a deeper seriousness, which is precisely what a good mythology episode in a serialized series should do. Bob Newhart’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted former medical examiner, for example, no longer seems like just a tragic story for a one-off guest star; now that character represents Ducky’s potential future. Gibbs’ gruff exterior is no longer just a character quirk; it’s a coping mechanism for the tragedies he’s lived through. And so on.

This subtext always existed, of course. But this episode grounds it in something specific. Most clip shows don’t work because they lack stakes. This one works because it actually raises them.

Loose ends:

  • I didn’t mention the case of the week once. This is because I have no recollection of what happened in the case of the week. I’m going to go ahead and say it doesn’t really matter in this instance.
  • There’s an odd bit of product placement in this episode. What makes it odd is that it occurs during the fairly pivotal scene when Gibbs finds Rachel asleep on the floor. During their conversation, he lifts a Starbucks coffee mug to his mouth and the camera centers on it for a few seconds. Right in the middle of a conversation about Rachel’s dead sister. I normally don’t mind product placement, but this kind of took me out of the scene.
  • For leisure, Abby apparently makes sandwiches for a shelter and drives for a food bank. She’s already the most popular character in history, show. You don’t need to try so hard.

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