LL Cool J in 'NCIS: Los Angeles'
NCIS: Los Angeles has finished near the top of the TV ratings in its first two weeks–for good reasons, S. T. Karnick writes.

Given its status as a spinoff from the most popular show on television, NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigation Service, there’s little surprise in the fact that NCIS: Los Angeles has done well in the ratings during its first two weeks.

But it’s impressive indeed that the series finished third overall among all primetime TV programs, behind only NCIS and NFL Sunday Night Football. Following the tried and true formula for creating good popular entertainment, NCIS: Los Angeles repeats the important elements of NCIS while providing sufficient novel apects to distinguish it from its model sufficiently that audiences will see it as worth investing in.

Like the team in NCIS, which is set in Washington, D.C., the central characters of NCIS: LA are a diverse group of mostly young people who solve mysteries and fight crime. A prominent additional element NCIS: LA brings to the fomula is a national security angle, as the Office of Special Projects team works to capture particularly dangerous criminals who threaten the national security.

In contrast to the largely pristine offices in NCIS, the NCIS: LA team innhabits a tatty, grungy headquarters building that looks more like a variety of cluttered loft spaces than the offices of a serious organization. It may or may not be a plausible notion, but it’s different enough from NCIS to ensure viewers won’t see it as too imitative.

A more important difference from NCIS is the team’s use of advanced technology and its propensity for going deep undercover in false identities to penetrate the enemy organizations, which routinely puts their lives in great danger. This is a particular specialty of Special Agent G. Callen (Chris O’Donnell), the show’s lead character. He and Special Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J) tend to serve as lead investigators on the cases and engage in the most gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, and the like.

In between fights, the two engaging special agents trade insults regularly, like characters in a Howard Hawks film. (This, too, is one of the immensely enjoyable things about NCIS.) Both lead investigators are very likable but somewhat enigmatic–much of Callen’s past is murky at present, and Hanna evidences anxieties possibly stemming from his past as a Navy SEAL.

As in NCIS and most other contemporaty crime series, elements of the team members’ personal lives and aspirations are interspersed throughout the narrative, creating a set of overall story lines that carry on from episode to episode and encourage viewers to keep returning.

Also as in Hawks films and NCIS, G. positively enjoys the risks he undertakes by going undercover in dangerous situations. In episode 2, for example, he sets himself up as a potential target on a golf course in order to flush out a murderer. His bravery is made all the more impressive by the understated way in which O’Donnell portrays the character.

Hanna also seems to like his work and participates in the banter to some degree, although he is often gruff and standoffish, apparently reluctant to let anyone get close to him emotionally. That’s rather more of a cliche than one might like, but the producers have some fun with it: knowing Hanna’s propensity to shield his emotions, G. ends each of first two episodes by telling him, "Love you, man." Very Hawksian, and very engaging.

As in the semi-popular FOX show Bones, the team includes an operational psychologist who is as annoying to the other team members as he is to the audience. However, the insights he expresses do sometimes prove rather useful. The other members of the team are personable but not particularly strong characters at this point. If history is any indication, of course, we’ll get plenty of backstory about them in future episodes.

Linda Hunt is the real highlight of the show, however, as Henrietta "Hetty" Lange, the head of the division. The naturity and wisdom she brings are a welcome respite from the relatively immature and anxiety-prone team she oversees.

That is a significant difference from most Howard Hawks films, where older characters typically are rather risible, and is even a bit different from NCIS, where elderly pathologist Ducky (David McCallum) is wise and charming but overly talkative and occasionally a bit unfocused. Similarly, Special Agent Leroy Gibbs’s elderly ex-boss in NCIS is a bit of a weirdo who tends to pursue his own agenda. Thus Hunt’s character brings a nice new angle to NCIS: Los Angeles.

Of course, the central idea of the show is both rather Hawksian and is what drives NCIS as well: a group of individualists working together on a life-endangering project to do something very good and important. That has become a standard American popular culture story line, and it is certainly a decent place to start a TV series. On top of that, however, NCIS: Los Angeles brings enough new elements to the formula to make it a good deal more than just another hour of NCIS.

–S. T. Karnick