You don't have to be an "NCIS" fan to watch its spin-off, "NCIS: Los Angeles," which premieres tonight. Although the main characters of "Los Angeles" were introduced on "NCIS" last season, this pilot neatly gets everyone up to speed, quickly introducing Special Agent G. Callen (Chris O'Donnell) as he attempts to return to work after a brutal and traumatic shooting.
Staring moodily from a rather questionable motel room overlooking a Santa Monica Pier bathed in an amber sunset, he is clearly not at peace with himself, a fact that is quickly pointed out by his partner, Special Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), with that kind of fond toughness -- "What are you, my mother?" -- we've come to expect from our heavily armed good guys. Although he still has a month left on his medical leave, Callen is ready to pick up his meager belongings and get back to work.
Work is now based in what could be the very fancy lobby of a mission-themed hotel, all tile floors, flowery ironwork, exposed oak beams and Moorish archways. The light is golden here too, where it isn't dim, and although there is the expected buzz of activity -- the cellphone-wielding agents and their requisite laptops and computer screens -- it's not altogether surprising to see the diminutive form of Linda Hunt emerge from the shadows, all owlish specs and bobbed hair like something out of a Guillermo del Toro film, or a live-action version of "The Incredibles' " Edna Mode. Hunt plays Hetty Lange, who seems to be in charge around here, handing out high-tech trinkets, demanding expense reports and generally running a tight ship.
Although it's set in the sun-soaked Southland with shoot'em-ups galore -- the pilot opens with a car chase along Mulholland that quickly turns into the legendary hail of gunfire -- "NCIS: Los Angeles" feels surprisingly baroque, at times even picturesque. Callen is an orphan (he doesn't know what the "G." stands for) who can play any part, Hetty speaks Latin, Special Agent Kensi Blye (Daniela Ruah) speaks Arabic and new guy Dominic Vail (Adam Jamal Craig) can rattle off the history of San Diego and its environs with the colleague-rattling ease of an Age of Discovery scholar.
Rounding out the team are figures who are a bit more familiar -- computer expert Eric Beal (Barrett Foa), team shrink Nate (Peter Cambor), main boss Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll). They are all the best at what they do, which is catch bad guys, in this case a drug lord who has killed a naval officer involved in a major international investigation and has kidnapped his young niece.
Although much is familiar -- is it me or has the whole team-shrink-insta-diagnosis gotten old? -- that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The crime is intriguing and multifaceted, its resolution requiring a nice balance of street smarts and lots of gunfire. But as with the original "NCIS," the emphasis is on the characters of the team. O'Donnell and Cool J are the big draws of the spinoff, and they are promising leads, both displaying the necessary shape-shifting tendencies. O'Donnell especially can easily go from steely-eyed to sympathetic and back again, which creates the sort of shattered toughness that keeps viewers, particularly women, coming back for more. More important, the two have enough chemistry between them that the writers don't have to burden the characters with too much Felix/Oscar or good cop/bad cop nonsense.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, looks fabulous, a pleasing mixture of noir and gridlock, and there's an air of stability that's comforting in these uncertain times. Writer and executive producer Shane Brennan has worked on "NCIS" for years; he knows what he's doing and how to do it well; the casting is solid, the crimes international. What's not to like?
'NCIS: Los Angeles'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)