While seemingly lost in the murk of acronym-titled, murder-of-the-week television series, "NCIS" is more than a formulaic crime drama featuring a team of experts investigating yet another dead body.
Though the title lends itself to unwarranted confusion as a "CSI" clone, anyone who's watched the CBS show knows that's just not the case -- the "Naval Criminal Investigative Service" deals with all major criminal offenses associated with U.S. Navy and Marines, not solely deaths where body parts and other remains are left to be scraped up and examined by sexy lab workers. And while the "NCIS" actors are not unsexy by any means, their standout features are more in the realm of sassy, high-IQ geek.
The actors have much to do with making it all come together and keep it from wallowing as B-grade fair. First and foremost, there's Pauley Perrette as Abby Sciuto. Perrette doesn't just look the part (peppy-Goth soda addict with an eclectic style and technical forensic talents), she embodies the persona.
"I have a lifelong crime obsession," Pauley admitted on "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson." A sociology, psychology and criminal science major, she'd started work on her master's degree before being sidetracked by an acting career that made her the forensic specialist she apparently had been destined to become.
Her unconditional love for her team members is the glue that holds them together. In real life, the love goes global via her grrl groupies, who fill the forums with questions about where they can find -- among other things -- the pants, miniskirt or shirt the former lead singer of the L.A.-based, all-girl punk band Lo-Ball wore in the last episode.
Abby has a close relationship with her father-figure boss, the sternly private Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (the older-than-he-looks Mark Harmon). He is the cranky, guarded central character around whom his team of younger, more whimsical counterparts revolve. (Though regressively aging actress Lauren Holly, as his superior, played an equally serious, almost stodgy role -- that is until she was abruptly gunned down last season. Like "The Sopranos," the show's writers aren't afraid to unexpectedly kill off some of its leads without any foreshadowing.)
In bantering about the origins of Gibbs, Michael Weatherly's character, Tony DiNozzo, speculates that he was "sent to be the left hand of Yahweh; he was grown in a cabbage patch." In one of the slowest reveals on TV, the audience gets only sporadic glimpses of Gibbs' biography and why he's such a lovable grouch.
The not-bad-to-look-at Weatherly adds comic relief with his flirting with women, the recitation of movie minutia and getting smacked by Gibbs for sophomoric commentary.
DiNozzo has made statements like, "I've got a better chance of hooking up with Jessica Alba than these guys do of infiltrating SeaLift" -- a crack made even more humorous if you know that Weatherly's previous role was as the "Dark Angel" costar of his onetime real-life fiancee Alba.
Anime geeks claim Ziva David as their ultimate Israeli warrior princess. Played by Chilean-born actress Cote de Pablo, she was introduced in the third season as an elite assassin joining the squad under somewhat suspicious circumstances. Ziva is the cliche potential unrequited love interest for DiNozzo. Her gag: an idiosyncratic slaughter of American sayings -- "Mind if I take a bat nap?" -- otherwise referred to as Ziva-isms.
Devotees consider her fearlessness as appealing as her exotic looks. Usually dressed down in combat boots, cargo pants and sweaters, Cote earned many drool-laden points in this season's premiere wearing a dangerously low- backed dress while singing (yes, in her own voice) a rendition of Diana Krall's take on Tom Waits' "Temptation" -- now what's not hip about that?
As Stephen King once wrote: "There can be a big difference between what you think is great and what you actually like."
"NCIS" won't blow your mind, but when you want to chill out in your big recliner and take a load off, the show is a worthy prime-time choice.