Features

May/June 2011 NCIS: Bureaucrats with Guns

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

By Alyssa Rosenberg

The bureaucratic clashes extend internationally, and one of the running themes of the show is NCIS’s tense interactions with the Mossad. Here, too, the show portrays the Israeli intelligence agency the way most Americans probably see it—with agents who are awesomely competent, especially at assassination, with intel on terrorists that is better than ours, and with an agenda that is pursued with admirable patriotism from an Israeli perspective but that might not align with that of NCIS or America generally. NCIS, of all possible venues, has found a sensitive, substantive—if somewhat melodramatic—way to address this astonishingly sore subject. It does so in the person of Ziva David, a former Mossad agent who joins the NCIS team, has her loyalty tested by events, and, ultimately, in classic immigrant fashion, becomes a proud American citizen.

The police procedural genre has evolved into a reliable forum for presenting a world where the diversity of America works well. Squad rooms are often packed with recognizable American ethnic and cultural types, who roll eyes at each other but band together to get the job done. The core members of the NCIS team happen to be less ethnically diverse than most fictional squadrooms—the only African American is their boss, the director—but they exhibit a different kind of diversity. By cultural type it’s clear enough that Gibbs, a former Marine with a Bush-like faith in his “gut,” and his second in command, the ex-Baltimore cop and former Big Ten athlete. Tony DiNozzo, are conservatives, while forensic scientist Abby Sciuto, who dresses like a Goth and builds houses for the poor, along with special agent Timothy McGee, an MIT-educated geek who writes thinly veiled novels about the team, are the show’s liberal stand-ins. The characters’ political allegiances, however, are never openly stated. 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, as did 24, with its routine portrayal of federal agents using torture to extract information from terrorists.

Apparently, millions of Americans find something to like in the portrayal of a national security agency where the lawmen leave their politics at the doorstep—the kind of place where any of us might feel comfortable working. 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.

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

Comments

  • 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."

    Sure.
    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.