It’s been over two years since I wrote the Worst NCIS Ever! rant post, and I still think that was weak plotting. That episode was the premiere of the 10th season, but clinkers like that one episode seem incredibly rare. They’re turning out powerful, engaging stories even after 12 years. Still my favorite show currently airing.
So why is that the spin-off show, NCIS: Los Angeles, is such an ugly sibling to me? It’s seems so different that it’s as if it’s not part of the franchise, but some other — far less worthy — show. The new spin-off, NCIS: New Orleans, is so far proving to be as attractive as the first sibling, which puts the ugly one in even greater contrast.
Last week’s episode was so bad I just have to rant about it.
A cute coincidence is that, last Saturday, I’d just published my post about Black Hats pretending to be White Hats. Then I sat down to catch up on the week’s shows, and the NCIS:LA episode featured — guess what — a Black Hat pretending to be a White Hat.
No. Let me rephrase that: An obvious Black Hat pretending to be a White Hat. So obvious, in fact, that the moment he appeared on screen I knew he was a villain. That was the problem with the whole episode: obvious stuff was way too obvious, and far too many plot elements were just stupid.
Which is increasingly my main complaint with the show: It’s stupid.
How stupid? Well, let me count the ways…
The show opens with Sam Hanna and “G” Callen meeting an unknown party who supposedly has information about an abducted NSA agent. Now keep in mind that the first moments of any story are the “first impressions” time. The author needs to grab you and prove that the rest of the story is worth attending. This first scene was awful.
1. You and your partner — top agents with high training and lots of experience — are meeting an unknown contact in a deserted location specified by said unknown contact.
Do you: [A] As any cop knows, have one partner approach the party in the vehicle while the other hangs back; or [B] Both casually walk up to the contact as if you were meeting a friend for coffee? Top NCIS agents in Los Angeles say “B”!
Every viewer had to realize this was an obvious setup. How do you not practice extreme caution?
2. If an NSA agent was abducted, how about checking with the NSA to see if that’s true or for the current stats? One of the show’s schticks is all that electronic connectivity stuff (they have not one, but two.computer geeks as regular characters).
3. Walking into a clearly suspicious situation, wouldn’t a link back to base be a good idea? Another frequently repeated motif on the show is the magical earwigs that keep them all in contact. But no, let’s just casually both stroll up to an unknown contact in a highly suspicious situation.
4. Okay, so due to a temporary lapse of thinking, you’re in that situation, and a flash-bang grenade pops out from under the contact’s truck. (Where did the grenade actually come from?) That grenade is followed quickly with a smoke grenade.
Being a top agent with loads of experience you recognize it immediately (Deeks and Blye immediately recognized the fuse of the flash-bang when investigating the scene later on).
Do you: [A] run in separate directions so you’re not presenting a combined target (and take cover once clear); or [B] stand there so hidden bad guys can shoot you with ketamine darts? Top Agents say “B”!
5. You wake up in what turns out to be a well-constructed prison room, but wait! Under a carpet you find a steel plate screwed into the floor. If only we had something we could use as a screwdriver… Oh, look! Here’s a toolkit with a screwdriver.
What part of this doesn’t scream SETUP!
6. Once free from the room, you realize you’re in an area surrounded by an electric fence, so your apparent freedom is an illusion (SETUP!). (And isn’t it fun how you can throw a piece of wood at such a fence and generate a shower of sparks!) Suddenly some other “captive” appears (just in time to save your life), and he turns out to be the missing NSA agent. Or is he?
7. Sam asks him a question about the events of his capture (which the guy says happened when he left the office for coffee). Sam casually (ha!) asks if he used the Wilshire exit; the guy confirms this. Savvy viewers immediately recognize this as the old, “Oh, you must know Mr. Thompson” ploy to test a suspicious person. The Black Hat, for all his meticulous planning, misses this completely.
The script at this point seeks to keep viewers in the dark about whether Sam and G know they’re dealing with a Black Hat. The question Sam asks seems to indicate he was suspicious (finally demonstrating some awareness of their situation). Callen needs a code phrase from Sam to realize that something is up.
8. Meanwhile, back at NCIS HQ, they’re realizing two of their agents haven’t shown up for work. It comes out they’d received a tip about an abducted NSA agent, and now they check with NSA. A line is dropped about how the agent was apparently abducted from his home (not while leaving the office for coffee). So if you haven’t caught on by now, there’s a big honking clue.
In the background, on the big screen, we’re allowed to see the bottom of the NSA agent’s ID where it shows his name. The camera carefully keeps the face hidden.
Until it trucks around for the “big reveal.” Gasp! That’s not the guy Sam and G met! Oh, no! (Yawn)
9. The third act tension comes from a planned meeting between Assistant Director Owen Granger and a contact with vital information about an ISIS cell in Los Angeles. It becomes apparent that the trick being played on Sam and G is designed to find out where that meeting is.
How many believed G told the “NSA agent” where the meeting really was? (Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe, by the way, is a famous Los Angeles Mexican restaurant — a must try for any visitor or resident. I usually frequented El Coyote, but I’ve eaten at Lucy’s many times!)
The camera work and editing use a common device of cutting between the meeting with Granger and the approaching vans loaded with killers. We’re supposedly fooled up to the very moment the killers blast their way through the back door of the restaurant to find… an empty restaurant.
Gee. What a surprise.
10. Meanwhile, Sam and G (along with the “NSA agent”) have broken back into (a different part of) the building they woke up in and found their guns and phones. (Note to Bad Guys: take that stuff with you! Don’t leave it around to be found.) The phones are necessary to warn NCIS about the bad guys headed to Lucy’s.
Gun battles take care of both the “NSA agent” and all the killers. The White Hats win again.
11. One of my complaints about the show is that, in contrast with its parent (JAG) and its siblings, NCIS:LA guarantees at least one gun shoot out per episode. At least one. I find I’m increasingly against that sort of thing.
12, An even bigger complaint: Kensi Blye and Marty Deeks. I can’t stand them. The Blye character — unlike every single major female character on any of the other shows — seems to be primarily eye candy and doesn’t “read” to me as a professional anything (other than Hollywood actress).
They act like a pair of high school kids — their romance is so high school — and if I ever do stop watching the show, they’ll be a big part of why (the computer geeks, Nell and Eric: also pretty immature).
Bottom line: As with many shows — and as with the JAG–NCIS shows in particular — these are highly character-driven. A big part of the intended attraction is the characters. What makes the others stand out compared to NCIS:LA is that the others also feature some compelling stories. JAG delivered great stories throughout its run, and NCIS is giving us great stories even in its 12th year.
NCIS: New Orleans seems to be following in that vein. The characters are solid and mature and professional. The stories are touching and engaging (and not stupid). It’s almost like NCIS: Los Angeles is for a different audience with different reasons for watching. The stories seem to ask little of the viewer.
For example, last season, when Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt — a reason I keep watching the show) collapsed during the hearings in Washington, did anyone actually believe she’d collapsed for medical reasons and not realize it was a trick? I knew just watching the commercials showing that scene. (I’m pretty sure bullet wounds wouldn’t cause Hetty to collapse.)
In the post excoriating that episode of NCIS, I mentioned some painfully obvious plotting in the NCIS:LA episode I’d watched. This level of dumb plotting is sadly endemic to the show.
Another difference is that NCIS:LA spends a lot of time on terrorist cells and such. The other NCIS shows are more in the murder mystery genre with occasional shows about terrorist plots. That makes them smaller and more intimate and personal. In contrast, the NCIS:LA plots are more cartoonish and preposterous.
If this wasn’t a member of a family I regard so highly, I think I would have dropped it from the list of shows I follow. Part of the problem is that, after six seasons, I’m a little invested. But the show has definitely sunk to the least-liked slot in that list and is really begging the question.
Oh, well. So it goes. After all, it is just TV.
February 16th, 2015 at 4:59 pm
I prefer Castle to NCIS:LA. Then again, I prefer a lot of other shows to that spin off. Person of Interest does way better than NCIS:LA does on undercover work, and I think it’s because the characters are not deep ones.
What I mean by that is that one could watch season one of the LA show and not be lost with the characters in season 6. A good show should require some investment in time to get a sense of things, because that means that the characters go more places than from opening credits to closing credits.
February 16th, 2015 at 6:19 pm
Oh, yes, I really like Castle! It’s high on my list. Good characters and fun stories. They’ve even managed to pull off having the love tension resolved into a relationship and actual marriage. That’s often the death knell for a show where romantic tension is a key part. There’s a new show, also on ABC, Forever, that mirrors Castle in too many ways to be coincidental, and even so it turns out to be a fairly watchable show.
That’s a very good point about character growth over time. I agree completely. The more I think about it, the more I think “cartoonish” is a good label for NCIS: Los Angeles.
[As a former Los Angelean, I just have to say that it’s really quite annoying that WordPress thinks “Angeles” is a misspelling. 😡 ]
February 16th, 2015 at 10:19 pm
Oh yes, I do watch Forever. And Better Call Saul is shaping up to be just as epic as Breaking Bad.
February 16th, 2015 at 11:38 pm
I do plan to give Saul a looksee. I know Breaking Bad is critically acclaimed and highly regarded, but I just can’t get past the idea of a meth maker-dealer. That’s just too far outside my personal boundaries. Meth is such a dehumanizing and destructive drug — it may be one of the worst ones out there.
February 16th, 2015 at 11:47 pm
I recommend Breaking Bad because it’s not a conventional show. Walter White as a character is the kind every story should have. Also, the show doesn’t glorify meth in any way. I’ve met people who have suffered from it, and it is tragic what it does to people.
February 17th, 2015 at 9:45 am
It is, yes. I want to be clear that here I’m not advocating — let alone seeking to impose — my view. It’s just where my personal threshold falls. I have friends who love Breaking Bad, and that’s fine; I don’t have any problem with that at all.
There is a vast spectrum of story ideas and characters. There are folks, I’m sure, who don’t want anything to do with stories about con men or zombies. I’d bet most folks (I’d hope all) wouldn’t want anything to do with stories about serial rapists or child pornographers. The feelings about content and subject matter aren’t related to how well-written or conceived the stories or characters are. There’s a threshold each individual has for their taste in content and character.
I think it matters, too, whether we’re talking about a poem, a song, a movie, a novel, or a TV series. The shorter a piece is, depending on the arc of the plot and the moral compass of the work, the more scope it seems to have (in my eyes) for verging into dark territory. A single story about a serial rapist whose victim turns on him and kills him is one thing. A TV series that follows a serial rapist episode after episode is something else.
It would have nothing to do with glorifying serial rape — it’s merely in the presenting of that character episode after episode. (In such an admittedly extreme case, I imagine there would be a pretty big sense of public outrage. I doubt a studio would even attempt such a show.)
So — strictly for me — it’s a combination of episodic TV combined with a subject matter I find beyond my threshold of taste. I’m too aware of meth’s evils. I’ll have to seek my extremely well-developed characters and stories elsewhere. I’m just not going to let a meth maker-dealer into my life every week, but it is totally a matter of taste for me.
February 16th, 2015 at 8:59 pm
You’re right about that last episode of NCIS: LA. It was a really bad show. That said, I don’t have as much animus toward that show as you do. I, too, like Castle, although I’m not sure I am happy about Castle’s private investigator thing. That seems a bit contrived to me.
You’re right about the marriage thing, though. The marriage of Bones and Booth on Bones started that show on the downward path. As to Forever, I gave that a few views but just couldn’t get into the guy dying in every show and showing up in crawling out of the the Hudson River each week. Meh. And I have finally tired of Person of Interest. I started watching it from the beginning of the first season, but it seems to be the same show with only a slight variation each week these days. zzzzzzzzzzzz.
But, as I said in my comment on a different post of yours, different strokes for different folks.
February 16th, 2015 at 9:22 pm
Yeah, Castle is in, what, it’s seventh season? No doubt they’re trying to mix it up and create some variety. You can see a writer like Castle getting into a PI job, but not so much see him being very good at it.
(The whole idea of a mystery writer going along on police investigations is a bit of a stretch to begin with, but the cop and non-cop partner seems to be its own meme. The Mentalist is a good example. Monk, too, maybe? Never watched it, so I’m not sure. Perception on TNT is another example. One might even invoke Holmes and Watson, although Holmes wasn’t a cop. It’s kind of in the tradition of Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. Amateurs that are better than cops.)
Never watched Bones. An interesting thing about Forever, though: after the first few episodes Henry stops getting killed every episode. In fact, it’s been a half-dozen or so since he was. They’ve also downplayed “Adam” and in his last appearance softened his nature a bit. I totally agree about the dying thing — it’s like an idea they had, but after actually trying a few times started to realize how problematic it was. He apparently vanishes — clothes and all — but shows up naked. So how does he get his watch back?
With ya on Person of Interest. I missed the first season (or two?), but the characters have been holding my interest, and the situation at least continues to evolve. My biggest objection to the show is the idea that, once a week, they save one person or situation. I can’t help but think of all the other “irrelevant numbers” in NYC, let alone across the nation. In that sense the show is in this weird claustrophobic closed universe that gives me sense of, “Yeah, so what?”
And why can’t The Machine synthesize a voice? ❓
March 3rd, 2023 at 4:14 pm
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