Retro-Binge: JAG/NCIS


My classes in college didn't start until mid-morning somedays, so I usually had time in the morning to gather my stuff, get some food in my belly and prepare for the day and inevitably, I'd throw the television on some cable channel as background noise. Mid-morning cable channels tended- at least back then- to have a myriad collection of shows in syndication ranging from Charmed to Pensacola: Wings of Gold and yes, even JAG and NCIS.
As a result, I've watched- randomly and not at all on purpose- a lot of Charmed, JAG and, NCIS. (Pensacola: Wings of Gold seemed to be on either intermittently or right as I had to leave for class, so I've seen a bit of it- usually the opening credits, but not whole seasons of it.) Charmed aside (though I've seen the majority of that show and I think my parents or my brother had whole seasons of it kicking around somewhere)- it's JAG and NCIS that really stuck in my brain. 

To my knowledge, I've never seen either show in its regular time slot on its regular network when it either was airing (in the case of JAG) or still airing (in the case of NCIS.) What's wild to me now, thinking back on these shows is that along with Cheers/Frasier and Law and Order, JAG/NCIS has been a shared televisual universe that's been on the air since 1995. In other words, for 68% of my life, one of those shows has been on television in some form or another. (Law and Order: 81% of my life. Cheers/Frasier predates my existence by one year- it started in 1982- but ran for 22 years, which clocks it in at 57% of my life. The Simpsons have been around in one form or another since 1987- which means it's been on the air for 89% of my life- that fact gets even nuttier when you start having kids: none of my children have lived in a world without NCIS, Law and Order, or The Simpsons.)

Star Trek and other science fiction franchises aside, I find these weird spin-off universes fascinating. I'm not entirely sure why- I find JAG to be less formulaic than NCIS- but even NCIS wasn't totally locked into the Law and Order or CSI levels of formula either- sprinkling just enough character development throughout a season to keep you invested in the characters.

Let's start with JAG: the first season of JAG was on NBC and it's wild. Like if you've seen re-runs of JAG on USA or TNT, think again-- they apparently wanted Top Gun crossed with A Few Good Men and the first season is leaning hard into the former rather than the latter. There's a two-hour pilot which features Lt. Commander Rabb (David James Elliot) and Lt. Caitlin Pike (Andrea Parker)- but wait, once we get into the meat of the season, Lt. Pike vanishes (or is demoted to recurring) and is replaced by Lt. J.G. Meg Austin (Tracy Needham). Bud Roberts (Patrick Labyorteaux) and Admiral Chegwidden (John M. Jackson) don't show up until late in the first season. So it's... different. 

I was sitting there watching a chase scene where someone is trying to kill a US Ambassador in an episode set in Peru and thinking to myself, "man, this looks a lot like the ambush scene in Clear and Present Danger" and guess what kids? It was! In episode 3 "Shadow" some external shots of the submarine are taken from The Hunt For Red October-- and pretty much, if you've ever seen a shot of a submarine thrusting upward out of the water before splashing back down? That's from The Hunt for Red October- it's like the go-to "submarine coming out of the water in a badass, yet majestic way" shot for Hollywood now.

But wait, shit gets wilder-- I totally missed this, but in "Hemlock", Meg is critically wounded, and guess who shows up at her bedside? Her Uncle Ollie was played by none other than Oliver North. Yes- that Oliver North.

Throughout the First Season, the fact that our two protagonists are lawyers seems entirely incidental. 

It's also a fascinating cultural time capsule as well- it'd be fascinating to talk to people who served back then to see how accurate it is, but hoo-boy, are gender issues a topic for JAG. Lots of references to Tailhook and sexual harassment and the general integration of women into more high-profile positions within the military. On balance, I think they do fairly well with it-- but I've also got to get deeper into the show to see if they improve over time. (How they handle 9/11 would be fascinating to get too-- but alas, I only did a Season and a bit thus far just to get my toes wet and get a decent sample size for this post.)

Other fun geopolitical time capsules: the Peruvian episode features Sendero Luminoso, which was a stark reminder that shit was fucked up in Peru back in the day. Ditto for the inevitably and ham-fisted Northern Irish episode early in Season 2. Also, there used to be a country called Yugoslavia, kids and when it broke up, it wasn't pretty.

Season 2 seems to find its feet- well, sea legs- a bit more and it's a lot more balanced. We see the HQ of the Judge Advocate General. They try actual cases. They're really lawyers in Season 2 and it helps ground the show a lot more. 

But the wildest and most jarring transition? Between Season 1 and Season 2- part of this is down to the network transition, but Season 1 (on NBC) ends with a cliffhanger with Harm taken into custody for the murder of his old friend Lt. JG Diane Schonke, played by none other than Catherine Bell, who in the very next episode of the show is playing Major Sarah MacKenzie- an entirely different character. 

Guilty pleasure? 90s nostalgia trip? Just tired of a ceaseless parade of CW dramas crowding the airwaves? JAG is a fun trip back in time- and one worth taking if you're in a binging rut. 

NCIS isn't really that much of a retro-binge, because, well, it's still on the air with a whopping 414 episodes under its belt. It works. I mean, there's no other way to put it: this works. It's like peanut butter and jelly sandwich of television- it's not fancy, it's not particularly grand or appointment television- but if your brain is fried from watching The Wire or Game of Thrones you can pop one of these on and find out you've watched an entire season and a half without realizing it. It's more or less built in the same vein as Law & Order or CSI-- there's a basic formula it follows, but instead of random bits of character development here and there, they actually take the time- sometimes in subtle and other times not so subtle ways to build out and develop the characters. 

The wild thing about NCIS that emerged from deep in my brain: I watched so much of this show that I actually looked into how one could join the real life NCIS at one point-- it seemed to involve a hefty degree of military service that I was unwilling to do if memory serves- but it still holds up well, even after all these years. I don't know whether it's the time of year or just where my head is at at the moment, but sometimes, you just want to sit down and watch a show and NCIS provides plenty of episodes to do just that.

A new iteration of NCIS launches this fall with NCIS: Hawaii. NCIS: Los Angeles is still going, regular old NCIS is still going and only NCIS: New Orleans has shuffled off to the television retirement home. It seems like the future of this franchise is secured for the more or less foreseeable future. 

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