May/June 2011 NCIS: Bureaucrats with Guns

If Americans really hate government, why do they love watching TV shows about it?

By Alyssa Rosenberg

Photo: CBS via Getty images

It’s a running joke that the most popular show on television is one that no one will admit to watching. On February 1, 22.8 million people tuned in to NCIS, CBS’s procedural about a team of naval investigators, and it vies back and forth with the ubiquitous American Idol for the title of most-watched show in the country. That success hasn’t saved the show from being the butt of jokes by audiences who fancy themselves too sophisticated for it. When Liz Lemon, the main character on NBC’s hip sitcom 30 Rock, confesses to knowing the name of NCIS’s main character, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, her boss decides it’s time for an intervention.

The phenomenal success of NCIS is part of a little-noticed fact about contemporary American culture. Though the rise of the Tea Party supposedly means that Americans these days hate government, they can’t seem to stop watching shows about government.

Week to week, nearly half of today’s highest-rated network TV shows are set in government agencies, be they federal (NCIS, Bones) state (The Mentalist), or local (Law & Order, CSI), or in quasi-public institutions like hospitals (House, Grey’s Anatomy) and private law firms that deal directly with the government (The Good Wife). Even Glee is set in a public high school. On cable, the USA Network has built its brand almost entirely around quirky shows about public servants and their sidekicks, ranging from Burn Notice, which follows a CIA agent washed up in Miami, to In Plain Sight, about U.S. marshals who work in the witness-protection program.

Public institutions may be easy targets for populist Republicans, but they’re God’s gift to serial television. The state enjoys, as Max Weber famously said, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If you need a gun to fire by the third act of a drama, one of the most convenient ways to get it on stage in the first act is on the hip of a federal agent. Hospitals are similarly rich terrain for life-and-death scenarios, with scalpels and syringes replacing firearms and handcuffs. And like the elaborate institutional mousetraps that they are, bureaucratic settings reliably present characters with frustrating obstacles and petty turf wars, even as they struggle to do their duty and save the day.

Curiously, no one ever thinks about programs like NCIS as being about government. Certainly no one turns them on in order to get a civics lesson. Yet just as comedies like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report get audiences to come for the jokes and stay for the news, dramas about public institutions tend to incorporate the kinds of political tensions, policy conundrums, and bureaucratic cultures that determine how well or how poorly government works. Figuring out how these shows reflect Americans’ views and feelings about government is part of the fun of watching them.

As with any good law enforcement procedural, NCIS plots have a comforting predictability to them. A dead Marine washes up on a beach or a Navy wife’s body is found in a basement, and in an office somewhere in Washington, squad boss Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, says to his team of young investigators, “Grab your gear.” The corpse is then delivered to the agency’s medical examiner, Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard (who, in sly homage to past government dramas, is played by David McCallum, costar of the 1960s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the dead person’s computer and cell phone go to the lab, and the who-done-it investigation commences. But while these crimes sometimes turn out to be the result of the passions and vice present in every American community, more often than not they involve some larger threat to national security—Mexican drug dealers, an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, or a military contractor gone bad.

This widening narrative pattern roughly matches the work of the real-life NCIS (short for Naval Criminal Investigations Service), a small federal agency with a mandate that ranges from investigating felonies to gathering intelligence. In the past year, its 2,500 employees have done everything from helping send Somali pirates to prison to collaborating with other federal agencies and the Rhode Island State Police to crack down on child pornography. While JAG, the show about Navy lawyers from which NCIS spun off in 2003, was set fairly narrowly within the world of naval operations, NCIS takes advantage of its real-life agency’s broad turf to give viewers a show that’s simultaneously both a police procedural and a spy thriller—Law & Order meets 24.

But in addition to gunfights and forensic autopsies, the show’s plots routinely revolve around the tensions of having to cooperate with other federal bureaucracies—of working, as they say in Washington, the “interagency process.” On cop shows, detectives occasionally bump up against the Feds, but homecourt advantage means that our familiar squad usually carries the day. NCIS, by contrast, is constantly in conflict with other departments, and as a small agency is constantly at a disadvantage. While on police dramas the cops can always count on their department head to fight on their behalf, on NCIS Gibbs and his team are forever being lectured to by their not-altogether sympathetic boss, the director, about pressure coming from the White House or the Navy secretary to limit the investigation. It’s not enough for the NCIS team to be excellent investigators who work well together—they have to be hardened bureaucratic infighters as well.

The other agencies NCIS must wrestle with have bureaucratic cultures that play to our expectations. The FBI comes off as ham-handed and a bit slow on the uptake, but ultimately as a constructive partner. The team’s FBI liaison is an irritant professionally and personally—he was once married to one of Gibbs’s ex-wives—but he’s also a straight shooter with whom Gibbs can share a steak-and-whiskey dinner at the end of a long day. The two agencies may jockey for position, and they may have different interpretations of events, but their approaches to crime solving are generally similar. The CIA, by contrast, comes off as duplicitous, amoral, and more interested in aggrandizing power than in solving crimes. Its main representative, a mysterious agent with a British accent and a suspiciously cosmopolitan three-day growth of beard, has no qualms about taking over criminal cartels or trying to assassinate one of Gibbs’s agents if it suits the CIA’s larger agenda. Gibbs will cut a deal with him when the situation demands, but they are not friends.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a writer on culture for ThinkProgress and the Atlantic.


  • HMDK on May 09, 2011 5:55 AM:

    "In a time when we are constantly reminded that our politics is divided and dysfunctional, NCIS tells us, reassuringly, that at a more fundamental level we can trust our government precisely because it represents us all."

    And it's an okay show, with some good acting.
    But it has nothing to do with reality.
    It is exactly -because- it most often softens all the edges of real life that it is so broadly liked.
    It's a dulling little narcotic of a show.
    It shows what we want, not what we have, but it doesn't do so to inspire us for more, but to tuck us in.
    It's like an invitation to dinner withouth the meal. It's a nervous mother trying to soothe the rift between child and father with meaningless little platitudes.

  • Greytdog on May 09, 2011 7:42 AM:

    Frankly didn't like this show UNTIL Ziva David was introduced into the script. WIsh they'd bring back the tough Ziva instead of trying to remake her into another Kate. Never thought about the politics - it's an entertainment show - and the cast does it well. The plot lines get hackneyed & predictable but the interaction between the characters are becoming more interesting. And it's that interaction that keeps viewers coming back for more.

  • Daniel Kim on May 09, 2011 8:18 AM:

    Just as Tea Partiers demand that the evil government stay 'out of Medicare', viewers of NCIS and its relatives unconsciously know that they depend on reliable, disinterested bureaucrats to get essential work done that cannot be entrusted to private entities with their own agendas. The problem is that they have also bought in to the Reaganite narrative that government is evil, and so vote against their own interests.

  • Sam Penrose on May 09, 2011 1:26 PM:

    "And though the series has aired during a period when national security has polarized the country, no hint of such conflict disturbs the family-like camaraderie of the NCIS team, nor undermines its unerring competence. Neither does the show demand that the audience take sides in divisive issues"

    This is a whopper. NCIS started at the same time that Rove was pushing the terrorist threat level -- remember that? -- and with the same message: Al Qaeda is here trying to kill us and only empowered Republican soldiers can save us so for God's sake get out of their way. I'll let you hunt down your own references to the importance of making the electorate feel threatened to W.'s improbable reelection, but the point is that NCIS could not have helped more if it had been scripted by Rove.

  • Ian on May 09, 2011 2:59 PM:

    @Sam so fighting terrorism is a partisan affair for manly Republicans?

    This is the sort of framing only Rove could hope for. :)

  • Sam Penrose on May 09, 2011 4:18 PM:

    @Ian: referring to reportage and analysis I know Yglesias buys, and hope Alyssa is aware of. Not going to take 30 minutes to bolster my case, but if you happen to be curious try Googling "2004 election threat level margin"; here's a starting point: http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/08/tom_ridge_i_fought_against_raising_security_threat.php

  • ramjet on May 09, 2011 10:47 PM:

    "Though the rise of the Tea Party supposedly means that Americans these days hate government, they canít seem to stop watching shows about government."-Alyssa Rosenberg

    The first of many false premises and inaccurate interpretations which, in spite of the "seemingly" attempt to soften, remains typically hardened in a leftward slant.

  • conniemerie on December 04, 2012 10:51 AM:

    HMDK says it all very succinctly. I would like to add that the 2012 season has ramped up the government agenda (especially pre-election) inserting Abby's adoration towards the Obamanation's Bit ch among others. The episode about ptsd was inserted in a timely fashion to help support the anti-gun legislation that Schummer has penned to attack returning vets rights of firearm ownership because of an inability to be financially independent. NCIS has become (or has always been) under our government's control and it is very much "in your face" and insulting.