NCIS: Los Angeles, a mid binge review
About 4 or 5 months ago, I was travelling with my wife, and as often happens after a long day trip, we settled down to see what was on the hotel TV. By chance, we came across an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles. Without knowing much of anything, we just plain enjoyed that single episode (Seoul Man). It was enjoyable, playful, and had plenty of twists and turns. I didn’t really think much more of it until I was looking for something new to watch, and got in a position to be able to start a binge watch session on the first few seasons.
First of all, I have never watched the original NCIS or the New Orleans variant – although I am considering them as next. So I am a virgin to the overall universe, and the concepts. With that, I started at season one episode one, with the goal of seeing how the character development goes and how things work out. The title sequence made it very clear that the show was about the two parters, Callen and Sam – everyone else at the start is second, third, or even fourth fiddle. The original shows had a “rookie” character called Dominic Vail (played by Adam Jamal Craig), partner with the secondary character of Kenzi Blye (for reference, the girl and not surprisingly sometimes the T&A on the show). The rookie didn’t last out the first season, honestly he was not a comfortable character to watch and really didn’t bond in with the other characters at all. Another character, Nate the psychologist, seemed to be a bit like Data on STTNG, there to provide brilliant flashes to cover over plot holes or to speed things along. He too did not last out the season, for obvious reasons.
The first shows were pretty straight crime show stuff, but with enough decent twists and turns to make it interesting. It means that it’s never entirely obvious who committed the crime or who is actually pulling the strings until late in the third act, which is pretty good. I found I could rarely guess the twist up front to start with, but after a couple of seasons of episodes, I seem to have figured out their methods a bit. Safe to say that I found most of the first season pretty interesting, especially the character of Hettie Lange… that old lady runs the place with both an iron fist and an incredibly long leash, she knows just about everything and has a file on everyone. Her insights often close out episodes as she helps Callen and the other characters to understand some hidden meaning in all of it.
My problems so far are in late season 2 and into season 3. As is typical of most longer running shows, they try to work on character development, which generally turns into “character at a crossroads” style setups. I can honestly say that the whole “what is Callen’s first name and where is he from” story line is getting old pretty fast. When it was played as a peripheral story arc, it was easy to take. As it become more and more of the main arc and force other characters to do things, it became less comfortable.
The good: Well, they killed off the rookie in a pretty solid way, and replaced him with LA police detective Marty Deeks (played by Eric Christian Olsen). He has done a couple of thigns for the show, first bringing a lighter side to things and a more playful attitude, he has bumped the second partnership pairing with Kenzi to a leading role (and space on the opening credits), and he has brought a certain amount of sexual tension between himself and his partner that was lacking in the original shows.
Second season addition Nell (Renée Felice Smith) has also brought a balance, allowing a certain amount of play in the ops / computer / hacker room. This has been key to making the character of Eric seem a little less disconnected from the group, and brought that forward in the show. Overall, that gives a nice balance between the serious partners (Sam and Callen), the playful couple (Kenzi and Deeks) and the geeks (Eric and Nell). However, in season three they have also added in the character of Owen Granger (played by Miguel Ferrer) as Assistant Director of NSIC, effectively removing the need for the remote NCIS director character that was prominent in season 1, a role now reduced mostly to the guy on the other end of the phone (never shown). I have not been enjoying this character and how he usurps the power that Hettie has. It’s making things uncomfortable as I head towards the end of season 3.
OVerall, NSIC: Los Angeles is a good show. LL Cool J is rock solid in this one, staying right on character and giving just the right tough and tender mix that makes him believable. The rest of the ensemble cast is standing up each other well, the interactions are generally good. The personal character developments are boring as hell for the most part, mindless asides to try to create peril and connection, where none is really needed. When they have a “one crime in this episode and solved”, I am most happy. When they are playing long, often inane arcs, I am less convinced. A couple of times during the Blye, K episodes I have felt like just turning it off and walking away, and honestly the payout at the end of that double episode isn’t particularly worth it. I am hoping that the rest of season 3 and into season 4 make it worth it.