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What in the Hell Is 'NCIS,' and Why Is It So Popular?

It's the second most watched scripted show on television, but no one under 50 knows anything about it.
Screen grab via 'NCIS' opening credits.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the most watched scripted show on television is The Big Bang Theory. NCIS is the second most watched, and NCIS: New Orleans the third. We, the able-bodied, internet-using youth, are generally aware of Big Bang Theory. We know that it is a show that is, in some abstract capacity, about "nerds." We may have even watched at least one episode of the thing against our will. If nothing else, we've at least seen a guy walking around with a "Bazinga!" shirt on, because before we had Minions, we had "Bazinga."


The vexing thing about NCIS is that if you don't actually watch it, there's not a clear way to figure out what the hell's going on in the damn thing. Unlike The Office or Bar Rescue or Real Sex, its title doesn't give so much as a hint as to what it's about. "NCIS" is just a jumble of unpronounceable letters. It could stand for "No Comments in School" and be about hard-ass teachers in a private school trying to enlighten youths while dealing with their horrible, rich parents. It could stand for "Never Create Insane Sketches" and be about a group of artists whose art came to life and attacks them. It could stand for "North Carolina Is Shitty" and be inexplicable, anti–North Carolina propaganda. Tableau pictures of its cast don't reveal much, either. The people in this image could be literally anything: a group of teachers; a jury; the staff of an office; a sex cult. The only thing for certain is that one of them is a goth.

But guess what! They're not a sex cult at all! They are the cast of NCIS, a show whose audience on any given episode is double the population of North Carolina.

As every conservative dad and grandparent alive today knows, NCIS is a cop show. It's not just any cop show, however. It's about cops in the Navy (turns out "NCIS" stand for "Navy Criminal Investigative Service"). This means that the cops have jurisdiction over all the regular places cops can go, but can also do cop stuff pretty much anywhere they want, which allows it to break out of the conventions of the standard-issue police procedural. Throughout its frankly inconceivable 12-season run, the show has set episodes in New Orleans, Afghanistan, and an abandoned boat in the middle of the ocean. It has centered episodes around a knockoff of the game World of Warcraft, as well as a knockoff of the illicit online trading network Silk Road. One episode features a recurring gag in which investigators can't understand witnesses because they're all wearing Halloween masks.


For all its on-paper ubiquity, there's a reason NCIS doesn't get the same burn online as shows like Mad Men, True Detective, and Orange Is the New Black get, and that's because NCIS's audience is old. Like, really old. The median age of the show's viewers is 60. For context, the median age for TV watchers (i.e., people who watch TV on TV and not on the internet) is 44.4 years old—if you just look at broadcast TV, that number jumps up to 53.9 years old. In other words, NCIS is a show for old people on a medium that is itself, by and large, for old people. It's only logical that the most consumed piece of media on a medium with an increasingly aging audience would be one that appeals the most to that demographic.

Each episode of NCIS follows more or less the same formula as many other police procedurals: Episodes begin with a crime, generally an unusual death. Then we cut to the NCIS squad kickin' it in their high-tech office, bantering, until somebody (usually the incredibly named Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by professional television actor Mark Harmon) barges in and announces they've got a murder to solve. From there, it's off to the races. Two guys—one named Dinozzo, whose entire character is based around the fact that he's a smartass, and one named McGee, whose entire character is based around the fact that everyone calls him "McGeek"—then go around and ask some questions and gather some evidence while bantering. Said evidence gets sent back to the lab, where the goth and a super old Scottish guy use it to figure some stuff out, and then Harmon's Gibbs solves the case with the gruff military detective equivalent of your dad beating you in a game of one-on-one with a sky hook.


Forgive me if I glossed over some of the finer points of NCIS lore; it's hard to sum up 282 episodes of a network-television juggernaut in a single paragraph. But then again, part of NCIS's fun is the fact that every episode is basically the same; in a sense, it's like listening to Krautrock. You settle into a predictable groove, and the joy of the show comes in the form of noticing the subtle deviations and tweaks to the formula. No matter how crazy things around them get, the characters remain dry and witty.

An image from the opening credits, just in case you were doubting its American bona fides. Screen grab via 'NCIS'

Like its contemporaries, NCIS draws plot lines from real-life conflicts. One episode from season two centers around protecting a veteran who accidentally killed civilians in Iraq from revenge-seeking terrorists. A later episode follows the crew to Afghanistan, where Gibbs rescues a female Marine from the terrorists who kidnapped her. Stories such as these present the War on Terror as an obvious, cut-and-dry concept. The American government, the show tells us, is good. The people who are against the American government are, presumably, bad.

It's been argued that this jingoistic undertone to NCIS is almost sinister: Indeed, the investigators cash in on their Big Data chips to solve crimes by tapping into every imaginable resource, whether it's diving into cell phone records, credit card statements, or someone's saved file in a game. By showing the good guys catching unapologetic bad guys using these privacy-invading methods, NCIS is definitely endorsing surveillance culture. The Atlantic points out that Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor, is a sponsor of NCIS: Los Angeles, which means that in addition to reminding television viewers that they should remain vigilant in the War on Terror and therefore keep their company in business, Lockheed Martin is also keeping star LL Cool J in newsboy caps.

Dinozzo finds himself. Screen grab via 'NCIS'

Arm of the military-industrial complex or no, NCIS is not without its charms. Like most bad shows, it's smarter about its badness than people give it credit for. In one episode, an NCIS crew bursts into a Halloween party to the applause of a crew of onlookers. Some dipshit goes, "Great group costume, guys! You spelled 'CSI' wrong on your hats!" In another episode, McGee(k) gives a juice cleanse a shot and hates it. In yet another, the technophobic Gibbs runs through a warehouse as he's guided, Pac-Man-like, to a computer he's meant to shut down, only to shoot the thing instead of pulling the plug. These aren't jokes you have to be a rocket surgeon to understand, but they're signs of self-awareness in a format that often gets dismissed too easily.

It's tempting to write something like NCIS off as "trash TV," and in a sense, it definitely is. There are certainly more intellectually stimulating ways of spending a Saturday than watching ten episodes of NCIS in a row, and I don't think anyone would claim that the show's made with the same craft care that goes into something like The Americans or Game of Thrones. Still, it's worth watching, if for no other reason than, because they're massively popular cultural documents, NCIS and shows of its ilk are a reflection of how a lot of people actually think. And so, next time you wonder why your uncle in some flyover state buys into the latest insane piece of right-wing propaganda, just remember that the charm of NCIS may very well have something to do with it.

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