Behind the Acronyms of the Most Popular American TV Shows

Local viewers can now watch a whole season of each of two different incarnations of 'NCIS' – and they have a special reason to follow the shows.

Michael Handelzalts
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The cast of 'NCIS.' Eighteen million viewers in the U.S. alone.
The cast of 'NCIS.' Eighteen million viewers in the U.S. alone.Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts

In one of the episodes of the “Rizzoli & Isles” series, detective Jane Rizzoli’s younger brother Frankie (also a detective; these series love family affairs) rattles off, to everyone’s amazement, the acronyms of 17 different and independent (of each other) American security agencies. This happens when the investigating team (as occurs sooner or later in every police procedural I’ve seen) runs into agents from one of those acronyms, and it turns out that various agencies are bickering over the same crime, spreading frustration all around.

Some of the acronyms are world famous. There is the CIA, Central Intelligence Agency (which is not allowed to conduct its investigations within the U.S., but there are always black ops and other kinds of illicit missions that seep in), and the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose agents’ ranks trump those of local cops. Then there is the NSA, National Security Agency, which collects every bit of information about anything, all the time and at all times (see Edward Snowden). But what about the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), TFI (Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence), or even the IRS (yes, those who chase elusive taxes). All of them have their covert agents, and many episodes just lurch between showdowns of badge-flashing.

There are series whose titles are fictional acronyms. One of the most famous is “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” – which in its heyday had three franchises (Las Vegas, Miami and New York) and now has only one (“CSI: Cyber” with Patricia Arquette), but it lives on in reruns. And there is “NCIS,” about which I’m going to rhapsodize a bit here.

The reason for the rhapsody is that HOT has scheduled a whole season of two different incarnations of the series, one after the other. The episodes of the 12th season of “NCIS” – arguably the most popular American TV series worldwide, with an average rating of 18 million viewers in the U.S. alone – are running on HOT Zone every Saturday at 21:00, preceded by the episodes of the fifth season of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” a spin-off of the original.

Before going into the series in more detail, let me tell you that courtesy of HOT, we as viewers will be lagging far behind: CBS, producer of the series, premieres the 13th season of “NCIS” on September 22, and the seventh season of “NCIS: Los Angeles” on September 21.

And now, finally, for the acronym and what lies behind it: it stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service – a team that investigates crimes within the ranks, in this case the Navy, which also oversees the Marine Corps. The series is a hybrid of two systems – the military and the police – with the two differing hierarchies and their foibles. This ought to be of particular interest to our Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan and the man he tapped for police commissioner, Brigadier General (res.) Gal Hirsch, who is supposed to bring some Israeli military sense into the somewhat falling-apart Israeli police ranks.

Anyway, “NCIS” itself is a spin-off of another fictional acronym series, “JAG” (Judge Advocate General), which was basically the same idea of “Navy plus” – created by Donald P. Bellisario, still the executive producer of “NCIS,” but no longer the show-runner. It combines the military and civilian systems of judicial conduct. “NCIS” was born from one of the plots of “JAG” – the episode demanded a crime investigating team, so one was invented and written in – and in turn spawned two spin-offs: the aforementioned “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and the fairly new “NCIS: New Orleans.”

The core of the “NCIS” series is Supervisory Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon, with his intricate back story (parents, spouses, military career), intriguing haircut (a silvery sort-of-a-mane), and a look that can launch a thousand investigations, freeze his team members, and frighten suspects out of their wits. But the charm of it is what – or rather who – revolve around the core. There we have the womanizing, jocular and in general full-of-himself Special Agent Tony DiNozzo, (played by Michael Weatherly), and the slightly socially awkward technical geek Timothy McGee (played by Sean Murray), and my personal favourite, the forensic scientist Abby Sciuto (played by Pauley Perrette) with her gothic disposition and general quirkiness. There is also, of course the agency director, Leon Vance, and the pathologist with his sidekick. The nice thing about such series is that with time you stop paying attention to the plots, and follow the characters just for the fun of it.

“NCIS: Los Angeles” has an equally endearing cast, with a diminutive elderly sage, Hetty Lang, played by Linda Hunt, who has been everywhere and done everything as a special operative, and her team: G. Callen, Sam Hanna, Kenzi, Marty and the indispensable computer geeks Eric and Nell. It is too early for me to say anything about "NCIS: New Orleans," as the characters are not part of my personal world yet.

We in Israel have a very special reason to follow “NCIS,” because for several seasons the main female character in the series (besides the endearing Abby) was Ziva David, first as a liaison officer with the Mossad, and then as a full time NCIS agent, following her falling-out with her father, the head of the Mossad. The character, played by the Chilean-American actress Coté de Pablo, created quite a following, what with her on-and-off relations with Tony, her Middle Eastern aura (with some rather abominable Hebrew on screen) and general enigmatic charm. When Ziva decided to go back to Israel, which meant writing her off by season 11 (which ended recently on HOT), there were ardent pleas from fans to bring her back. After I wrote about the series, some of them even tried to enlist me for the campaign.

But don’t lose hope, Ziva-Pablo fans; it’s not a lost cause yet: “I think the fact that they never killed the character off is very telling,” de Pablo teased recently in an interview. “Under the right circumstances, I think it could definitely be explored,” meaning her eventual return to the series. But that is for American viewers to find out in season 13. Season 12, which started in Israel recently, is 
definitely Ziva-less.