A New Or­leans set­ting is the per­fect fit for a spinoff of a clas­sic TV se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Graeme Blun­dell

MARK Har­mon, ar­guably the best-known ac­tor in the world right now and star of the world’s most watched tele­vi­sion pro­gram, is an un­likely su­per­star. In a rare in­ter­view with First Watch he re­veals him­self to be self-ef­fac­ing, charm­ing and in his of­ten droll way as de­ter­mined as Spe­cial Agent Gibbs, the character he plays in the long-run­ning mil­i­tary se­ries NCIS.

At one time a big-screen lead­ing man in films such as Sum­mer School and The Pre­sidio in the 1980s, he be­came a fix­ture on prime­time dra­mas with runs in popular se­ries such as Chicago Hope and St Else­where, grabbed an Emmy nom­i­na­tion for his four-episode arc on The West Wing, and has been at the cen­tre of NCIS since 2003.

A spin-off from mil­i­tary se­ries JAG, NCIS spent a not par­tic­u­larly aus­pi­cious pi­lot sea­son un­der the name Navy CIS, pre­sum­ably due to the then-le­git­i­mate con­cern that non-navy per­son­nel would have no idea what the acro­nym “NCIS” meant. Har­mon jokes that it was “a show that wasn’t good enough to get all that no­ticed and wasn’t bad enough to get can­celled.”

If you’ve never watched — more than a mil­lion Aus­tralians re­main de­voted view­ers — heart-throb 63-year-old Har­mon stars as Spe­cial Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the Naval Crim­i­nal In­ves­tiga­tive Ser­vice, with ju­ris­dic­tion over crimes con­nected to mem­bers of the Navy and Marine Corps. Gibbs’s team in­cludes for­mer homi­cide de­tec­tive Spe­cial Agent An­thony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), com­puter spe­cial­ist Tim McGee (Sean Mur­ray) and oddly lit­er­ary coro­ner Dr Don­ald “Ducky” Mal­lard (David McCal­lum). And then there’s Goth-punk-nerd pin-up Abby Sci­uto (Pauley Per­rette), the least likely foren­sic spe­cial­ist in the his­tory of crime shows.

Of­fi­cer Ziva David (Cote de Pablo) on loan from Is­rael’s Mos­sad in­tel­li­gence agency, re­cently left the se­ries (mys­te­ri­ously), to Har­mon’s pa­ter­nal dis­ap­point­ment. “Ah well, th­ese things do hap­pen to casts in long-run­ning shows,” he says. “We like each other and there’s a lot of re­spect be­tween us which has been there for a long while but I al­ways think that that’s a re­ally nice thing to have along with the work, if you’ve got it, and we have it on this one. It’s rare.” Like Gibbs, he’s clipped and a lit­tle terse, con­sid­ered but ca­pa­ble of let­ting the words flow when he feels he re­ally has some­thing to say. Oth­er­wise, he lets the si­lences hold. Oc­ca­sion­ally a smile seems to edge into his voice, soft­en­ing it a lit­tle.

NCIS is a show that’s easy to dis­miss as a num­bers mys­tery-of-the-week pro­ce­dural, lovely to look but leav­ing no last­ing im­pres­sion. But that glib as­ser­tion would be­lie the sto­ry­telling pro­fes­sion­al­ism that pro­pels the show. Over 11 sea­sons the char­ac­ters have gained emo­tional depth, com­plex back­sto­ries have evolved and the se­ries clev­erly de­liv­ers long plot arcs, of­ten pick­ing up on sto­ry­lines from past sea­sons and bring­ing them back into fo­cus. But strate­gi­cally it still de­liv­ers stand-alone episodes that al­low new view­ers to en­ter its world and the cos­mol­ogy of its char­ac­ters with­out the need to know of past events.

NCIS started a lit­tle un­easily as a gen­tly ironic par­ody of most of the for­mu­la­rised pat­terns and riffs of mur­der-mys­tery, crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion and inside-gov­ern­ment thrillers. The back­ground sto­ries were var­ied: clever takes on se­rial killers and arms deal­ers, with a dash of ter­ror­ism and es­pi­onage hys­te­ria. But it wasn’t un­til se­ries four, when new pro­duc­ers in­tro­duced the com­plex back­sto­ries of the char­ac­ters, un­peel­ing them one by one, that the NCIS jug­ger­naut took off.

The pro­gram be­came one of the most agree­able, in­tel­li­gent and play­ful com­mer­cial shows around, with, as Har­mon says, the em­pha­sis on character and hu­mour. Th­ese days the show presents ba­si­cally a kind of comic uni­verse in which the pro­tag­o­nists and ac­tion are con­structed to con­tin­u­ally re­as­sure us that things will ul­ti­mately work out hap­pily, even as they en­com­pass a con­sid­er­able de­gree of disorder and dan­ger.

He’s ob­vi­ously proud of the show’s longevity. “The only other show that’s still on the air from that class we came in on is Two And A Half Men and they’re leav­ing this year,” he says.

“There were 14 new shows on the net­work that year, and this show has got­ten stronger over the years and was prob­a­bly found and for­mat­ted quicker in for­eign dis­tri­bu­tion than even at home in the States. The in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence for this show is huge and it took the US longer to get on board.”

He has a new show too, NCIS: New Or­leans,


the much-an­tic­i­pated spin-off se­ries start­ing this week, and com­ing to us, as they say, “di­rect from the US”. It fea­tures Scott Bakula (a Har­mon look-alike) as Spe­cial Agent Duane Pride, the head of a ded­i­cated team of navy in­ves­ti­ga­tors in the Big Easy with its rich set­ting of mu­sic, drink­ing and wicked­ness.

Har­mon is co-ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer with Gary Glas­berg, the NCIS showrun­ner and cre­ative co­or­di­na­tor, the se­ries to fea­ture crossovers with the orig­i­nal se­ries, Har­mon, Weatherly, Per­rette and McCal­lum all ap­pear­ing in the first sea­son. With a his­tory of more than 250 episodes of the orig­i­nal show com­ing be­fore the new one, there’s room for a great deal of cre­ative pol­li­na­tion, some­thing hard-core NCIS fans love.

Har­mon says the new show’s in­cep­tion can be traced back to a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween him­self and Glas­berg in 2013 when they sat down to dis­cuss ideas for the com­ing sea­son.

“There was al­ways a New Or­leans NCIS of­fice and some­times we do two-part episodes in or­der to pay more at­ten­tion to one thing or another,” he says. “Gary started talk­ing about New Or­leans and the of­fice there and as we talked it just seemed to be re­ally plain that this was more than just two episodes.”

Sud­denly ex­cited, they pushed to­gether a cou­ple of sto­ry­lines and got in early and pitched it to the net­work, “and did it par­tic­u­larly with the character of New Or­leans be­ing ev­ery bit as im­por­tant as any character in the piece”. Har­mon says they ac­tu­ally played mu­sic dur­ing their sub­mis­sion to the CBS ex­ec­u­tives pitch­ing a full-scale spin-off, Glas­berg play­ing Louis Arm­strong on his iPad.

From the very be­gin­ning, he says, they were de­ter­mined to not only foot­print the new se­ries on their suc­cess­ful NCIS show but give it its own iden­tity through the mu­sic.

I won­der if it’s a mil­i­tary ver­sion of David Si­mon’s Treme, his se­ries about the Cres­cent City a year after Ka­t­rina, the first sea­son hav­ing dealt with the ter­ri­ble im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. Treme, pro­nounced “Truh-may” (still show­ing on Fox­tel’s SoHo), takes its ti­tle from the name of one of the city’s old­est neigh­bour­hoods, a his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant source of African Amer­i­can mu­sic and cul­ture. It’s about peo­ple fac­ing loss and deal­ing with shock and the way that their mu­sic heals their psy­chic wounds.

Har­mon laughs at the sug­ges­tion and says, “I hope there’s a lot more New Or­leans in it than that. We’ve been sam­pling all kinds of dif­fer­ent sounds and there’s cer­tainly a ca­coph­ony of sounds when you go down there to shoot. You can’t stop it. You don’t try to stop it.”

The big­gest dif­fer­ence he sug­gests is that NCIS: New Or­leans, based in that of­fice in the fa­mous French Quar­ter, en­com­passes all of Louisiana, im­bued not only with the DNA of the city but the whole Gulf Coast.

“There’s a tremen­dous very ob­vi­ous naval pres­ence in New Or­leans, ship­yards on one coast and Marine Corps as well — a lot of peo­ple with lib­erty try­ing to get into a lot of trou­ble in a very short time,” he says. “It’s a place that’s been around for a long time; there are es­tab­lished routes and un­der­ground hap­pen­ings there that the pres­ence of NCIS has al­ways been part of. Their ob­vi­ous path is to pro­tect the Marine Corps but be­ing there it’s hard not to get caught up in the process of the city, and at the same time keep it clean.”

At the end of our chat Har­mon sighs, and then laughs slightly.

“It’s been an in­ter­est­ing travel,” he says of NCIS. “We’ve had many changes over the years and this New Or­leans part of that is an aligned foot­print to our show and hope­fully, we’ve set it right and they’ll make it their own.”

NCIS: New Or­leans, Tues­day, 9.30pm, Ten

Mark Har­mon, above, in a scene from NCIS; and, left, with Scott Bakula

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