Friday, December 18, 2009

My favorite televison show by far is NCIS, which I was delighted to see covered recently by The Wall Street Journal. The below quote nicely captures why I like the show, along with why I think its success confounds so many in the media establishment including, perhaps, reporter Amy Chozick:

"NCIS" is proof that even if the economics of the business are in upheaval, large swathes of the audience still want traditional storytelling, righteous heroes, and reality that's not offensively gritty.

CBS executives say the success of "NCIS," which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, rests in the show's levity. In between solving crimes related to the military, "NCIS" star Mark Harmon's Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his cohorts exchange witty guy banter and crack jokes, even as they stand over a dismembered corpse.
Yes. I'll take a show with a solid plot and actual moral conflict any day. But as for "reality that's not offensively gritty," I beg to differ, because reality isn't fundamentally gritty.

Commenting on the nature of art, Ayn Rand once said something quite profound that pertains to the offensive grittiness of most modern art. She was speaking of sculpture, but her comments apply equally well to television drama (and I include "'reality' TV" in the genre as naturalist drama):
[C]onsider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist's view of man's nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures. ("The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," in The Romantic Manifesto, 19.)
The "offensive grittiness" in many television shows isn't reality per se, but the artists' general impression of its essential malevolence. This negative assessment of reality in offensively gritty art both offends me and, because it contradicts mountains of evidence from my own learning and experience to the contrary, it also strikes me as foolishness. The "grittiness" of so many modern artists and entertainers is a pose calculated to distract one from the fundamental sort of ignorance that comes from failing to engage in (actual) reality and, which, in turn, leads to despair. Who needs a gritty-acting Chicken Little as an artist? I don't.

I agree with and prefer the benevolent assessment of reality offered by NCIS, with its engaging and sympathetic protagonists, its captivating stories, and its brand of light humor . Special Agent Jethro Gibbs is motivated by a strong sense of justice, and he leads a highly capable team in its pursuit. I enjoy and highly recommend the show.

-- CAV

PS: Possibly forgetting to fast forward my TiVo at one point during a recent episode of NCIS, I recently saw this old, but brilliant Fruit of the Loom ad.

Writing about it for Ad Week, Mark Dolliver quips that, "I'm not sure whether it's meant as a good-natured homage to the Cirque du Soleil school of performance or as a wicked parody of it."

I think it's both. The ad manages to harness the more spectacular aspects of that type of performance, while aiming a well-placed jab at its peculiar strain of avant-garde pretentiousness.


Mike said...

I have enjoyed the few episodes of NCIS that I have seen, and I figure I'll come back to it on Netflix or something and catch the past seasons. (Can't DVR it because the wife has two shows already recording when the new episodes are on.)

NCIS resembles CSI (Las Vegas), another generally good show that has really only exhibited one serious flaw so far: the tendency of writers to incorporate really disgusting themes and fetishes into the occasional episode plotline purely for shock value. We didn't need a whodunit on infantilism, to give one example. Objective, rational people know mental illness when we see it, and our approach to mental illness is clinical and sympathetic, not circus-sideshow gawking. Fortunately, most CSI Vegas plotlines are of much higher quality, and indeed it is usually the honest, persevering party that prevails.

It's amazing how many TV shows have degenerated badly in recent years... I once thought Family Guy was just hilarious, but now they're mostly missing the target.

Gus Van Horn said...


I didn't really follow NCIS until my wife -- who watches more TV than I do -- had followed it for a while and I ended up seeing a few episodes.

I'm in the process of slowly catching up using Netflix. I never was into CSI, so I can't be completely sure, but what you describe sounds like a pretty far cry from NCIS. I would guess that espionage/terrorism/international intrigue (all plausible due to the global reach of the military) serve to spice up NCIS episodes in the same way CSI writers tried to use mental illness. If that's the case, you'll be trading up whenever you get around to NCIS.


Anonymous said...

I've only recently started watching NCIS LA, after having the original series recommended to me (was going to watch the original from series 1)but I'd be interested to know if the earlier series have anything as bad as the recent Muslim-loving/Christian-hating plots, or if this is a new sensation? See for an example of what is apparently acceptable plot-wise for this show.

Gus Van Horn said...


I am neither a leftist nor a multiculturalist nor a Christian and I have not seen the episode you mention. Perhaps, after I do, I will comment on it in more detail.

I will say that a story paralleling the massacre at Fort Hood could very easily be in poor taste if not carefully written. I will also say that even as a non-Christian, I have seen examples of cultural relativism put out by Hollywood in which Christians were the sacrificial victims that I found offensive and that could offend anyone.

That said, I also do not think that Christianity is above criticism, and although I think most modern Christians would not commit an "honor" killing, I think that certain fundamentalist types are quite capable of it.

The title of the show, "Faith," gets us quickly to the heart of the matter. Although religion has made some positive contributions to civilization, its epistemology of faith and its ethic of sacrifice both militate against bringing the light of reason into the decision-making process.

This problem is no longer so severe in many branches of Christianity after the Rennaissance and the Enlightenment, but I think there are Christians perfectly capable of committing murders in the name of their faith. Not only that, it happens from time to time: Abortion clinics do occasionally get bombed, and not by Moslems.

Setting aside whether the episode is "really" about Fort Hood or whether it is in good taste to do an episode like it the Christmas after, I am interested to see for myself what this episode is like. I will be disappointed (and unpleasantly surprised) if it is an attempt to whitewash Moslems or get across in an "everybody is guilty so nobody is better than anyone else" type of culturally relativistic message. (That would be inconsistent with what I have seen so far of NCIS.)

But faith as such is the opposite of reason and is an attempt to bypass reason. Faith has, historically, motivated people to perform terrible atrocities. Setting aside questions of timing, I think it is quite possible for this episode to have been very well-done and provocative.

There is a significant difference between most Christians and Islamic totalitarians, but that difference is not to be found in the method of faith: It lies in the fact that Christians are generally more rational than Moslems. If the episode indicates this difference in some way, minus the multiculturalism, I will be somewhat happy.


Richard said...

Just as religionists, to have a God, must also have a devil, so producers of television shows (& many movies) think that shallow and very silly humor, in the midst of a very serious matter of crime, constitute some sort of 'balance'.

Far from it. Some "gritty" shows only focus on grittiness, sit coms only focus on silliness, but there is something terrible about silliness among people who are seriously working to resolve evil.

It makes the evil appear to be celluloid, rather than, well, evil.

Though I do watch NCIS at times, all characters but Jethro are written so they come across as playing some sort of game with the seriousness of the situation they face. They are as teenagers smirking whilst in detention.

Gus, please rethink this one.

Gus Van Horn said...

I disagree.

(1) There is some level of silliness in the characters, but less than or equal to what one might expect from today's popular culture.

(2) People who work in grisly occupations often use humor that might seem or be inappropriate in other circumstances as a means of achieving some healthy psychological distance. I haven't a problem with some of that in a series like this so long as it is done tastefully, which it is here.