NCIS seasons, ranked from worst to best

CBS’ long-running cr1m3-drama NCIS has become an international sensation since it premiered in 2003. In fact, NCIS is so popular that it’s been named the top-watched show in the world several times, and it has inspired several spin-offs in the process.

At the core of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) is Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by executive producer Mark Harmon), who leads a group of talented agents as they work to solve high-level cr1m3s tied to the U.S. Armed Forces. The somewhat predictable, yet highly entertaining military-themed police procedural can both tickle your funny bone and make you grab a tissue, just hopefully not at the same time. So, before getting a head slap (à la Gibbs) for slacking off, let’s dive into EW’s list of NCIS seasons, ranked from worst to best. (Potential spoilers ahead)



19. Season 18 (2020)

When a show has been on as long as NCIS, there are bound to be some missteps along the way, and season 18 is one that just fell flat with fans. It starts off with the team on the hunt for an opioid drug ring and then chugs along without a major storyline. However, the show’s 400th episode, “Everything Starts Somewhere,” stands out because it not only reveals the mur.der case that brought Gibbs’ and Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard – played by the great David McCallum – together for the first time many years ago, but Mark Harmon’s real-life son Sean plays a younger version of his character.

Keeping things in the family, Harmon’s actual wife, Pam Dawber, also joins the cast as journalist Marcie Warren, who helps Gibbs track a serial ki.ller. However, with missteps like Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham) and Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderrama) locking themselves in abandoned jail cells, this season may leave viewers less than impressed.

A Bowl of Cherries

18. Season 14 (2016)

This season isn’t the show’s strongest as NCIS finds itself adjusting to life post-Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo Jr. (Michael Weatherly). His absence upended the group dynamics, and it took a few seasons of trying out new regulars before the core cast would click back into place in season 19.

A couple of highlights, however, are the episodes “Philly,” in which agents Alexandra Quinn (Jennifer Esposito) and Ellie Bishop help MI6 Officer Clayton Reeves (Duane Henry) solve the mur.der of a petty officer, and “Keep Going,” in which Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) risks his own life to literally talk someone off a ledge. And while there’s a “NCIS Most Wanted” suspect to catch, an increasingly dangerous plot against a Congresswoman to stop, and international investigations to follow through on, season 14 is just too heavy on character development to really shine.

Family Ties

17. Season 15 (2017)

After Gibbs and McGee escape from captivity in Paraguay, the season just plugs along. Gibbs questions his leadership abilities (again), and Ducky trades his morgue for a lecture hall in England. One major upside is Maria Bello‘s turn as Dr. Jacqueline Sloane, who joins the team as a profiler in “Skeleton Crew” — and she’s a major driver of the events of the shocking season finale.

Another highlight is seeing Torres and Bishop get closer both professionally and personally when they go undercover as a couple in “High Tide,” though they’re nothing compared to “Tiva” in the eyes of most fans. It’s also heartbreaking to lose a core character in “Two Steps Back” as the end of season 15 would mark the departure of Chief Forensic Scientist Abby Beethoven Sciuto (Pauley Perrette).


16. Season 6 (2008)

The season starts strong with the team hunting a mole in the NCIS headquarters, but it fizzles out after they’re found. A new NCIS Director, Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll), is brought into the fold, and we’re introduced to Gibbs’ long estranged father, Jackson – played by Ralph Waite – when a mur.der investigation takes Gibbs to his hometown in “Heartland.” However, the way Special Agent Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) is left in the hands of her father, Mossad director Eli David (Michael Nouri), at the end of the season can leave a bad impression on many viewers.


15. Season 17 (2019)

After the unexpected return of a fan favorite character, season 17 hums along as the team solves a series of cr1m3s against veterans, Marines, and even a musician in the Navy’s elite band. And while seeing Bishop, McGee, and Torres get saddled with the cleanup of the evidence garage, as is the St. Patrick’s Day-themed episode, “Blarney,” these moments aren’t enough to carry the season.

However, a major bright spot is seeing Christopher Lloyd as Joe Smith in the series finale, “The Arizona.” He’s a Navy veteran who’s set on being buried with others who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Lloyd gives a memorable retelling of the events of that day that stirs Gibbs to open up about his time in Kuwait for the first time.

NCIS Essential Episodes

14. Season 19 (2021)

Season 19 of NCIS marks the beginning of the series’ current character lineup. After the team tracks down the serial ki.ller Gibbs has been seeking, the long-time lead agent finally takes a step back after the emotionally-charged episode “Great Wide Open.”

Former FBI agent Alden Parker (Gary Cole) replaces him, and over the course of the season, Palmer and Agent Kasie Hines (Diona Reasonover) are exposed to a dea.dly toxin, and Nick is haunted by an undercover mission he worked on a year ago when arms dealer Reymundo Diaz is released from prison. The season finale, “Birds of a Feather,” brings viewers into familiar territory as Parker is framed for mur.der, and while the team jumps in to clear his name, the show leaves audiences with a major cliffhanger.


13. Season 16 (2018)

This season shows Gibbs’ past resurfacing in unexpected ways; he can’t even escape to his cabin in the woods without colleagues showing up to ask for his help solving a case. However, there’s plenty of drama to go around. Palmer gets put in a tough spot when his father-in-law asks him to interfere with a mur.der investigation, and Torres finds himself on a fishing boat, covered in blood, and with no memory of how he got there.

Agent Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) is forced to return to his high school, and he later contemplates leaving NCIS for a high-paying Silicon Valley job. Another major arc starts in “She” when Bishop finds notes Ziva kept on a case NCIS had stopped investigating, prompting us to wonder if the latter could still be alive.

NCIS "Return to Sender" Season 13, Episode 21 Air Date: April 19, 2016 Pictured left to right: Emily Wickersham as Eleanor Bishop, Mark Harmon as Leroy Jethro Gibbs and Sean Murray as Timothy

12. Season 13 (2015)

This season is all about shake-ups. Gibbs survives his gunshot wound and he goes on to bond with a wounded soldier (also a sniper) who’s recovering at Walter Reed. “Spinning Wheel” is a treat of an episode that’s all about Ducky and his relationship with his half-brother, long thought dead, and Abigail Scuito works to clear her brother Luca’s (Tyler Ritter) name when he’s suspected to be behind several poisonings on a private plane. Guest appearances by Jon Cryer and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who welcomes Gibbs to the White House in “Homefront,” are bright spots in an otherwise mediocre season.

NCIS Season 12, Episode 20

11. Season 12 (2014)

Season 12 opens with a heart-pounding episode, “Twenty Clicks” in which Gibbs and McGee are on the run from Russian mercenaries after their helicopter is shot down. As the season progresses, Ducky goes back to London, where he works on a case connected to a childhood friend, Jimmy becomes a father, and Tony’s father shows up to help the team infiltrate the black market art world after a rare painting is found to be a fake. By the season’s end, the team is hunting a global terrorist group called “The Calling.”

NCIS Essential Episodes

10. Season 11 (2013)

Season 11’s second episode “Past, Present, and Future” is always hard to watch, as viewers are forced to say goodbye to a fan favorite character. However, NCIS gains some great Midwestern sass with the introduction of Eleanor “Ellie” Bishop, a former NSA analyst who we learn has a connection to Parsa, a terrorist the NCIS team is hunting, in the episode “Monsters and Men.”

McGee contemplates taking his relationship with Delilah to the next level (after seeking advice from DiNozzo), and we see Abby and Jimmy help the Naval Medical Research Center discover what caused an outbreak of a mysterious disease afflicting children of military families. And although NCIS waves goodbye to another familiar face in the season’s final episode, “Honor Thy Father,” the touching flashbacks are worth it to learn a little more about Gibbs’ past.

"Sandblast" -- Gibbs and the team (Michael Weatherly,left, and Cote de Pablo) investigate a suspected terrorist attack at a military country club that kills a Marine Colonel, on NCIS, scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network.

9. Season 4 (2007)

This season is pretty heavy on character development — we see DiNozzo take on the role of team leader during Gibbs’ short-lived (predictable) retirement, while learning that McGee is an aspiring cr1m3writer in “Cover Story” – but it’s truly worth watching.

NCIS Director Jenny Shepard blurs the lines between her personal and professional life when she brings the arms dealer Rene Benoit, also known as “La Grenouille” (Armand Assante) to the attention of the investigative team, and DiNozzo spends the season with a new paramour, Jeanne Benoit (Scottie Thompson) who turns out to be connected to La Grenouille.


8. Season 10 (2012)

NCIS season 10 is solid, though it lacks a major villain after Gibbs deals with the big bad from season nine in the first episode. And while the core team makes it out alive, no one is left unscathed. McGee is in the hospital, Abby is having recurring nightmares, and Ducky is forced to take some medical leave, though he does take this time to revisit a closed case from 12 years prior that he suspects has connection to a present-day cr1m3.

Later on, Ziva reunites with her father in the emotionally-charged episode “Shabbat Shalom” when he visits unexpectedly. However, it ultimately ends in tears and an international manhunt that ends up putting the NCIS investigators’ careers on the line after they defy orders to relinquish the case. While some of the storylines are neat and tidy, others seem a little far-fetched, like Gibbs’ barber asking the Special Agent to prove his son’s innocence, which keeps this season more mid-list in the rankings.

NCIS Essential Episodes

7. Season 8 (2010)

After Gibbs saves his loved ones from the ill intentions of the Reynosa Cartel in the opener, it’s back to business as usual for the NCIS team — mur.ders are solved, missing people are found, and military secrets are kept safe. We learn how Gibbs and DiNozzo first meet in the episode “Baltimore,” and the guest appearance by Bob Newhart in the mid-season episode “Recruited” as Dr. Walter Magnus, a former mentor to Ducky, is a real treat.

By the season’s end, international intrigue comes to the NCIS team with the five-episode “Port-to-Port serial ki.ller” storyline, which introduces viewers to the Major Case Response Team from Spain and brings one of Gibbs’ old mentors back into the fray.

Mark Harmon In 'NCIS'

6. Season 1 (2003)

While the first season of NCIS isn’t its best, it certainly isn’t one to skip, either. After a few core characters had already been introduced in another CBS procedural, JAG, the first full NCIS installment kicks off with the memorable episode “Yankee White,” which is followed by a little bit of everything — a hostage situation, mur.ders, and a plot to assassinate the president — as the audience gets more familiarized with Gibbs and his (initial) team. It also starts the NCIS tradition of featuring actors before they became TV staples, like Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as a marine, and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn, who plays Gibbs’ former commanding officer.

"In The Zone" --A mortar attack in Iraq becomes the crime scene for a murder, on NCIS, Tuesday, April 29th (8:00 -9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Mark Harmon and Cote de Pablo

5. Season 5 (2007)

This season of NCIS has a ton going for it, even though it was cut short due to a writers strike. We finally start to get some backstory on Gibbs, Ziva goes undercover to catch a serial ki.ller, and Abby works hard to prove a particular dog didn’t ki.ll its owner.

Season five is also home to the show’s 100th episode,  “Chimera,” in which the team investigates an abandoned, top-secret naval research ship that’s carrying a dea.dly secret. However, it’s the explosive conclusion to the “La Grenouille” storyline that really makes this season stand out, though it ultimately means a few characters end up leaving the show.


4. Season 7 (2009)

Season seven is simply one of NCIS’ best, and it’s not just because Ziva becomes a permanent member of the team. High points are Vance keeping his family safe from a North Korean assassin and Gibbs resolving an international conflict involving his former mentor, Mike Franks (Muse Watson). There’s even a robbery/mur.der that causes Washington D.C. to lose power, which forces the team to rely on old-fashioned detective work rather than the top-rate technology they’re known for.

However, this season really picks up steam when cr1m3s committed by the Reynosa Drug Cartel come to the team’s attention, and Gibbs is kidnapped by order of the cartel leader, Paloma Reynosa. She turns out to be the daughter of Pedro Hernandez, who Gibbs ki.lled 20 years earlier because Hernandez was responsible for the dea.ths of Gibbs’ wife and daughter. In the finale, we’re left wondering just how far the family feud between Jethro and Paloma will go after a major cliffhanger.

"Twilight" - NCIS (Mark Harmon and Sasha Alexander with guest star Shane Conrad) will pay the ultimate price when a hunt for a terrorist assassination team turns deadly, on NCIS

3. Season 2 (2004)

The second season of NCIS is a great example of a show surpassing its first season pretty quickly because it isn’t afraid to bring the drama. Ducky gets kidnapped, DiNozzo contracts the plague in “SWAK,” and the team finds out the mafia is using part of a bombing range set aside for the Marines as a dumping ground for bodies. McGee joins the team full-time, but we’re also given our first big heartbreak of the show in the series finale “Twilight,” as NCIS, in a move that would become routine, says goodbye to one of its core characters.


2. Season 3 (2005)

NCIS truly hit its stride with season three, starting off strong with a two-parter that sees Gibbs set out to “K.ill Ari” after a devastating loss in the previous season, while serving as the introduction to the highly capable Ziva David, a former Mossad officer who ends up joining the NCIS team. Later on, Ziva and Tony go undercover together, and we get our first glimpses of what will be a long, slow-burn flirtation that fans simply love.

The season’s two-part ending is particularly captivating, as Gibbs briefly falls into a coma and viewers get some real insight into his past while he’s unconscious, including how happy he was with his wife and daughter, and how their dea.ths have continued to rattle him over the years.

NCIS Essential Episodes

1. Season 9 (2011)

Season nine is peak NCIS. While the major arc focuses on insurance CEO-turned-terrorist Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff) wreaking havoc, this installment is tense from start to finish. Tony defies orders to clear his father’s name after the senior DiNozzo is found in the trunk of a car with a body, and no memory of how he got there, while Abby learns more about her family when she undergoes medical tests for a voluntary kidney donation.

And without a doubt, the most memorable guest star this season is a coy Jamie Lee Curtis in the recurring role Dr. Samantha Ryan, and we’re given an explosive cliffhanger in the finale, “Till Do Us Part” that help make it the show’s best season — so far.

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