‘NCIS’ Is TV’s Number One Franchise, But How Accurate Is It?
In Season 3, Episode 5 of NCIS: Los Angeles, the team investigates the risk factors for s****l a*****t on Navy ships, culminating in a scene where Callen (Chris O’Donnell) dresses down a commander for fostering a dangerous environment for his sailors. Not a single gun was fired. Of course, in the actual Season 3, Episode 5 of NCIS: Los Angeles, the team investigates the link between al-Qa3da and a Mexican d**g cart3l, culminating in a shootout with corrupt CIA agents! So much to unpack there; “corruption” doesn’t begin to describe the charter of a clandestine intelligence agency, and it’s highly unlikely that any Mexican d**g cartel would align itself with al-Qaeda, given differences in group identity and ideology. Both of these plot points feel ripped from the pages of Tom Clancy, tapping into a popular understanding of things we find scary. More pressingly, why is NCIS even involved?
CBS has turned its status as America’s “most watched network” into a slogan thanks in large part to the NCIS franchise. Charting strong after almost 20 years, the original NCIS was the most-watched primetime scripted series of the 2021-2022 season. Itself a spin-off of JAG, it spun off into NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: Hawai’i, and the upcoming NCIS: Sydney. While most viewers probably don’t watch NCIS for realism, speculating about audience motivation is a futile exercise that may not even reflect on the potential irresponsibility of the work in question. NCIS is wildly inaccurate, and in an age of increased sensitivity toward depictions of law enforcement in popular entertainment, accuracy matters when that entertainment is, in fact, the most popular.
What Is the Real NCIS?
According to the official government website, “NCIS is the investigative entity within the Department of the Navy (DON) responsible for major criminal investigations involving Navy and USMC equities, service members, and affiliated civilian personnel … routinely investigating the c****s of homicide, rape, s****l a*****t, child physical and s****l a****, b******ry and robbery, larceny of government and personal property, and aggravated a****t.” Other core mission areas include economic c****s, cyber, and counterterrorism. NCIS has sole jurisdiction pertaining to these areas when it comes to the Navy and Marine Corps (USMC). Despite that there are field offices all over the world, including Italy, Japan, and Singapore, with hundreds more subordinate offices – all suggesting future installments in the franchise – NCIS is a relatively small agency, whose actual New Orleans office is staffed by only two special agents.
On TV, NCIS has to compete with those larger agencies head-on to capture the excitement of, say, FBI, Homeland, or Narcos. The fast track to those shows’ gunfights and explosions is one particular core mission area: homicide. Most episodes begin with a m****r and end in the arrest of a suspect, who usually confesses. With NCIS: New Orleans having been canceled in 2021, and each NCIS season running at a maximum of 24 episodes, the 2022-2023 TV season will broadcast 96 NCIS episodes, almost twice as many weeks in a year. Does the real NCIS investigate (and solve) 96 homicides a year? No; according to the Department of the Navy, in 2020, there were 11 Navy and 7 USMC homicide d****s. The writers have to effectively invent 80 c****s for the teams to solve. As a report by Color of C***e is going up is steadily increasing.” Is this the reason why? Well, that’s our futile exercise.
The Needs of a Blockbuster Outweigh the Truth on ‘NCIS’
The action may be an exaggeration, but there is a kernel of truth, to put it lightly. In 2013, NCIS agents exchanged gunfire with a mass shooter in Washington D.C., and in September of last year, an agent was wounded in a shootout with a suspect in Harris County, Texas. However, these events are only one part of an agent’s everyday experience, and the NCIS shows don’t appear interested in the other parts. As one of the two New Orleans special agents notes, “For every real hour of work I do, I spend seven hours writing about it.” There is no paperwork on NCIS. We want to see people doing things, and luckily, the lead characters of the four shows so far are field agents, not the medical examiners or forensics guys (which NCIS doesn’t actually have). In NCIS: New Orleans, the lab geek Sebastian Lund (Rob Kerkovich) wanted to become a field agent – which, as it turns out, NCIS doesn’t really have, either. Naturally, a star like LL Cool J is gonna get his hands into every step of the investigation, from victimology and surveillance to the door kicking and arrest. However, NCIS has always had local police execute dangerous take-downs and searches, until the creation of REACT, an NCIS tactical unit, in response to the mass shooting incident.
Having every agent do every job may be inefficient management, but it’s consistent with the shows’ instinct for simplicity. Where m*****s are caught and solved within the span of an episode, real-world investigations can take months, even years. The investigation into the high-profile m****r of Navy officer Corey Voss took five months. Despite being described by NCIS agents in TV terms as taking “a lot of twists and turns,” it still doesn’t map to the average NCIS episode. The real work is more like a puzzle, and it’s actually quite fascinating, with phone calls, phone records, maps, wires, pattern recognition. On television, so much of the evidence or intelligence is delivered via dialogue, whether by suspects in the interrogation box or by agents flying into the room and summarizing the investigative work they’ve done off-screen. The priorities of this police procedural are decidedly not procedure.
What if ‘NCIS’ Were More Accurate?
Process-heavy shows like Mindhunter and We Own This City certainly never returned CBS numbers. Like paperwork, procedure is boring, which further suggests why other areas of the NCIS mission aren’t dramatized on the shows. Cyber gets a nod every now and again when a system out there needs a good hacking, but what about “economic c****s”? Well, as Lester Freamon once said, “You start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.” As was true for The Wire, investigations beyond m*****s begin to expose cracks in the system. Fraud cases might implicate politicians or businessmen, and not the cartoon kind who specifically dislike those middling NCIS agents for whatever reason. The largest fraud case in Navy history involved an NCIS supervisory agent, later sentenced to 12 years in prison.
If economic c***e is off the table, then what about s*****l a*****t, the DON’s second most frequent c***e behind narcotics? Among all branches of the military, the risk of s****l a*****t is highest aboard Navy ships. A Department of Defense briefing showed that 12% of male sailors and 28% of female sailors reported s****l a*****t, and one in three women report retaliation after coming forward. This is, of course, an epidemic failure of an American institution, but the NCIS franchise isn’t interested in criticizing the military. In 2017, cast members including Sean Murray and Wilmer Valderrama were invited to tour a Marine Corps base, and NCIS has always had real agents on staff as technical advisors, like the late D’Wayne Swear, who inspired Scott Bakula’s character Dwayne Pride.
Don’t Expect the ‘NCIS’ Formula to Change
In the very first paragraph of an assessment summarizing a 2021 RAND report on s****l a*****t in the U.S. military, the authors used pointed words that ought to be delivered directly to CBS: “To reduce rates of s****l a****t and s****l harassment – and not just respond to them – efforts should focus on the current state of prevention for these problem behaviors within the services.” (Emphasis added). The report itself discusses strategies for that prevention, none of which have ever been dramatized on NCIS. How could they be? When the mayor commissioned a think tank on police reform in NCIS: New Orleans, the show was canceled shortly thereafter. This was likely due to a decline in ratings, but it’s telling that the writers only tackled systemic failure when there was nothing to lose.
Ultimately, the inaccuracy of NCIS begins with its disproportionate focus on homicide, which leads to a disproportionate depiction of m*****s solved. In NCIS, as with the rest of the CBS catalog at least, the police are unambiguously heroic, a characterization that was once only stale but increasingly feels belligerent in the face of activist objection. The problem with NCIS is the problem of the American police procedural, a pathological need to mythologize justice at the expense of discussing c***e prevention. Are we disinterested in the larger forces that give rise to c***e because they can’t be arrested or shot? The work of the RAND Corporation or the ACLU isn’t dramatic enough for TV, and for that matter, neither is NCIS. If the real agents want to impress us, they’re gonna have to shut down that big cartel/al-Qaeda conspiracy we’ve all been reading about.