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