Rocky Carroll Explains NCIS’ Popularity & How the Writers Enjoy Teasing Fans
The following contains spoilers from NCIS Season 20, Episode 12, “Big Rig,” which debuted Monday, Jan. 23 on CBS.
Going into NCIS Season 20, fans wondered how the series would reinvent itself. It was the first full season without Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon), and some people thought that it might crash and burn. However, that hasn’t been the case. Midway through the season, things are trending in the right direction. Gary Cole (Agent Parker) has stepped in as a great replacement for Mark Harmon, and the series is trucking along.
However, Harmon’s departure wasn’t unprecedented. Over the series’ 20 seasons, there has been a lot of cast turnover, and plenty of fan favorites have been k****d or written off over the years. Despite these changes, the series has always found a way to reinvent itself. It’s also outlasted a number of spinoffs. CBS pulled the plug on NCIS: New Orleans in 2021, even if it was a mistake; NCIS: Los Angeles was just given a cancelation, and NCIS: Red never hit the air. Yet, the flagship series is still moving ahead, and it just had a great crossover event. Rocky Carroll, who plays Director Leon Vance, recently spoke with CBR about NCIS‘ longevity and how it handles cast turnover. He also addressed his role as director and whether the writers enjoy teasing character d****s.
CBR: NCIS is in its 20th season, and there’s been a ton of cast turnover, which you can expect with such a long run. In your opinion, how does the series keep finding ways to reinvent itself with so much turnover?
Rocky Carroll: That’s a great question because I think that the core of what the show is the relationships of the characters — even though there are new characters and there has been turnover. Our show has lasted longer than most Hollywood careers, and 20 years is a very long time to tell stories. I also think the style of the show [helps] because it’s a procedural.
At the risk of being redundant — I’ve said this many times in many interviews before — procedurals are to modern television what westerns were back in the ’60s and ’70s. There’s a sense of right and wrong, a sense of almost frontier justice. As convoluted and as complicated as law and legal matters are in the world, there’s something very reassuring about turning on your TV and knowing that, in the end, the good guys are going to win, and the bad guys are going to get their just desserts.
That’s what procedurals are. Procedurals tell that story. They show the good guys trying to follow some sort of moral compass and a moral code, and eventually, good wins over evil. That will never go out of style. It’ll never go out of fashion. It’s what NCIS is rooted in — to have a central character who’s got this moral compass for everyone else and who has an innate sense of right and wrong. That, to me, has been the formula, and people like that, especially as complex and complicated as things are in the world now… There’s something very reassuring about knowing that at the end of the hour of NCIS, good will win over evil.
You mentioned the moral compass. Gary Cole has taken over that role. How has he jumped in so effortlessly after Mark Harmon had been there for so long?
You have to credit CBS. You have to credit the network for creating [the character]. As big and as relatable as Mark Harmon was — Mark Harmon was pretty much a household name even before NCIS — he was the perfect fit for that. People knew him. They trusted him. They were comfortable seeing him in their living rooms every week, and I think Gary also had a following long before stepping into that role, which has made [his success] possible.
The fact that he’s not a 24-year-old hotshot detective… He’s somebody who has wisdom, who has knowledge, and who has years of experience. That’s what that main character, that main role, brings and is what people gravitate toward. You can surround him with a lot of Young Turks, but when you have that seasoned veteran — like the quarterback of the group — it gives a certain sense of stability for the cast, crew, and even for the viewers.
Zooming in on this week’s episode, you directed “Big Rig.” For anyone who hasn’t seen the episode yet, can you give us just a one-liner to tease the episode?
One of our NCIS agents has to go undercover to infiltrate a c***e ring centered around a trucking company. We brought in one of our recurring guest stars, and an FBI agent goes missing, and we have to go undercover to solve the case. I think people will really get a kick out of it. It hearkens back to some of the older episodes that we used to sh00t. I love when we do the undercover stuff, so I think the audiences will really like it.
Obviously, there are certain things you have to do when directing a series like NCIS, but is there anything that you like to slide in when you’re directing — like a calling card or odd shot that viewers should look out for?
It depends. There are certain things. As a director, especially on a series as successful as this, you’re not going to color outside of the lines too much. Having over 20 episodes under my belt directing, I like to think that my calling card really has more to do with the actors — my touch with the actors — as opposed to any kind of particular shot or a signature shot.
I’m still working on it. I’m still trying to find that thing. I always joke [that] what I’d love to do is what Alfred Hitchcock used to do. In the episodes I’m directing, and I’m not in, I’d just walk through and be a background character sitting on a bus or whatever. Those days are gone since I’m already in front of the camera for most of them.
There was one shot really worth pointing out. Right at the end of the episode, Torres and Sawyer are in a warehouse, and there was a vertical overhead shot. It really set the tone for how alone those characters were at the moment. Do you remember that or how it set a tone?
I do, indeed, and I’ve used that shot a few times. Literally, the first time we looked at that set, there was a staircase. I remember walking up to the top of the staircase with our director of photography, and I was like, “This is our opening shot.”
Torres and Sawyer both make it out of the episode alive, but fans were holding their breath the whole time. Do you think the writers enjoy teasing the fans? For example, McGee took over for Vance for an episode, and everybody thought Vance was in trouble, and Sawyer comes in like a proto-Torres. Is that an active process where they kind of enjoy teasing the fans a little bit?
I think so. It’s so easy to take people down the road. To see McGee sitting behind Vance’s desk, it just starts everybody in the direction of, “Is this the end for Vance? Is McGee taking over? What’s going to happen?” I think the writers do [enjoy teasing fans]. They are well aware of what happens, why you tease somebody out of context or put somebody in a position you don’t normally see them in. They absolutely love that.
I feel like, when somebody actually dies, nobody’s expecting it, and all the buildups are for nothing half the time. It’s great.
Like you said, you weren’t actually in “Big Rig,” but Vance has been through a lot over the years, and he’s had a couple of storylines just recently. What can you like tease about his character going forward?
That remains to be seen. It’s great because we have new characters, [and] we can tell stories with these new characters. We can go in quite a few directions. I really don’t know. I love my job in front of the camera. Behind the camera is a lot more engaging, a lot more all-consuming. I tell people that this is probably what the Royal wedding planner must feel like when you’re directing one of the most popular shows on television. So, sometimes simply being in front of the camera and playing Vance is much more of a relief than having to be responsible for everything as the director.
Personally, I’d like to see more of them in the field. I think that’s a good vibe.
[laughs] You know, it’s kind of out of the realm of possibility. The head of a federal agency rarely goes out in the field. Vance gets out a lot more than any of the real NCIS directors would, but every once in a while, they’ll call my number.
Since we don’t see Vance in the field very much, there was one episode earlier this season where he and Parker bonded over being old, alone, and married to their jobs. Do you think there will be more of a follow-up story there, more of the personal side of the characters?
I think so. It took a long time for Vance and Gibbs to find their footing. They were adversarial for a long time, and throughout the seasons, they eventually got closer. Gibbs saves Vance’s life in one setting. They both lose their wives to vi0l3nt d****s. So, there were these things that bonded them, that linked them. They realized they had more in common than differences.
So, I think that’s what we’re finding — and not exactly in the same way, not linked in tragedy — [with Vance and Parker]. Just the fact that both of these men are seasoned veterans and have been doing their jobs for a long time. So, I think yes. We’re going to spend more time looking into that and trying to find commonality and bonding between these two senior members of the team.
NCIS airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on CBS and streams on Paramount+.