At some point during the year, when faced with an episode of NCIS and an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, I switched from watching NCIS first, to eagerly jumping to Los Angeles. I’d initially suffered from my usual scepticism where it comes to spin-offs, but NCIS:LA quickly revealed itself to have an excellent understanding of what made NCIS popular in the first place, at the same time as its parent show started plummeting towards an ignoble end.
The day to day plots of the two shows are much of a muchness – a little less science in LA and a little more undercover, but basically running around shooting and interrogating people. The Navy angle in LA is usually even more forced than in the original flavour with a series of unfortunate seamen getting caught up in domestic dramas, gang squabbles and occasional terrorist kerfuffles. They’re all pretty daft and to be honest, I rarely paid them enough attention to grasp more than the basics of the stories.
Where LA succeeds and Original failed this year however was in the character department. Original flavour bounced all over the place, seemingly inducing schizophrenia in all of its characters and just hoping the viewer wouldn’t notice the inconsistencies. LA meanwhile gave its characters a much smoother time of it, allowing them the time to evolve naturally and actually have some time to react to events.
Chris O’Donnell (Callen) and LL Cool J (Sam) make a brilliant partnership, one of the best on screen at the moment. In my Fringe review I commented that great partnerships are about contrast, seemingly opposite characters actually complementing each other. These guys do that perfectly. Sam is the patient, quieter, more restrained ex-Navy Seal, while Callen the outgoing, risk taking, undercover expert with the mysterious past. They challenge but respect each other and have a really fun, bantering relationship.
I complained in the pilot about the lack of a strong leader character, and while I wouldn’t say they resolved the problem, they did make it more interesting. Hetty (Linda Hunt) is a really original character, office manager to a bunch of agents who just won’t behave. She’s tiny and not exactly a spring chicken (think Edna in The Incredibles) but also pretty handy when it comes to picking out brands of rocket launchers. Hetty doesn’t mother people at all, but she’s definitely the grown up voice of the group, happily manipulating them so that they learn a lesson. She and Callen lead the team together, her from an operations, administrative and political point of view, while he is the team leader in the field. She manipulates him, and he knows it; he listens to her advice, and she doesn’t take advantage. I’m still not really sure of who’s in charge, but the relationship is a fascinating one to watch.
The other members of the team were less stand-out, but perfectly adequate as supporting bodies. Surfer kid tech-whiz was a bit one-dimensional and the female agent was generally just treated as a token female agent, although her occasional sparks of personality hinted at something more interesting. The psychiatrist was poorly used, in too many cases he behaved like a child, showing a painful inexperience and over-enthusiasm when it came to getting involved in the law enforcement side of things. That might have been ok if it were balanced with some other skills, but he rarely was useful in any way, so just seemed a bit of a waste of space. The other junior agent was so utterly unremarkable, that when he left mid-season, I barely noticed.
I enjoyed NCIS:LA in the way I used to enjoy NCIS, harmless fun with good dialogue and fast paced plots; raised above being merely ‘entertaining’ by having some really great characters. If anything, NCIS:LA is partly responsible for my disappointment at NCIS, the season in LA was bright and fun and smooth, the season in NCIS was old and clunky and erratic. The newbie is definitely showing its older colleague up.