Will the 'NCIS' TV Show Survive Without the Mossad?

Local viewers must get used to the show without the Israeli angle, in the 11th season that just arrived on our screens.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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The cast of 'NCIS.' A close-knit team.
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Stop the world and hold the presses for an (old) newsflash: last Saturday HOT started to run the 11th season of the very popular “NCIS” series, in which its special relationship with matters Israeli (i.e., the Mossad) is suspended, if not severed. In the runup to season 11, HOT gave us season 10, in which the Israeli factor reaches its painful and lethal (for some characters) peak.

All that is old news on the wider screen of American TV, because CBS began to broadcast the 12th season of the series, on September 23. The crime-military procedural – the acronym in the title stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service – has been one of the most popular TV programs in the U.S. for the last five consecutive seasons at least, with average ratings of 20 million or more viewers. Its 10th season was the most-watched, surpassing even “American Idol” and NBC's “Sunday Night Football,” with peak ratings of 22.86 million viewers for an episode called “Shiva” on January 13, 2013.

It all started as a spinoff – another technical term from the series world – meaning a new series that sprouted from the kernel of a sub-plot or a character in an existing series, a kernel that was deemed deserving (possibly auguring high ratings), of its own habitat. “NCIS” originated from within “JAG” – a naval acronym for Judge Advocate General – a legal-military procedural described as “Top Gun meets A Few Good Men,” which ran for 10 seasons beginning in the late 1990s. Both series are a hybrid of two procedurals: the legal-criminal and the military: two systems of values and justice collide and try to coexist as cases and episodes go by.

Heading the NCIS unit is Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon), a former Marine, who lost his wife and child while chasing a Mexican drug dealer in the line of duty, was married three more times, and is currently single – always a great opportunity for sub-plots. He has a mane of silvery hair and a brisk, curt and fatherly manner toward his subordinates, who function as a sort of second family.

The close-knit team of MCRT (Major Case Response Team; armies love acronyms) operatives serving – and protecting – under Gibbs is composed of Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, a cocky, light-hearted, macho former Baltimore policeman; Special Agent Timothy McGee, a nerdy computer forensic specialist and the target of DiNozzo’s wisecracks; Forensic Specialist Abigail (Abby) Sciuto, a neurotic, charmingly gothic young woman (my favorite character), and – Israelis, prick up your ears – Ziva David, a former Mossad assassin turned full-time NCIS operative, whose final departure from the series is the main motif of season 11’s first two episodes.

The black-haired and black-eyed Ziva was (and on our screen still is) portrayed by the actress Cote de Pablo. It turns out, over the seasons, that Ziva’s father was the head of Mossad, and in one of the episodes of season 10 he is killed by a rogue agent, with collateral damage being the wife of the director of NCIS, Leon Vance. And before you scream “spoiler,” let me tell you that in this series such details do not really matter: The personal arc of the characters and the tangled loyalties are much stronger than unexpected plot details, however striking.

All that made season 10 of the series very Israel-oriented, although the Hebrew heard on screen on the few occasions when one can’t do without it leaves much to be desired. We met Ziva’s half-brother, a Mossad operative who went rogue (on the whole, if we were to take “NCIS”’s word for it, the main thing Mossad operatives do is go rogue; ultimately they all get “terminated” or “cancelled”), and confronted – with Ziva, in flashbacks – with the fact that her father was not a model family man. In one of the episodes of season 10 we are introduced to the woman who replaced Ziva’s father in the top Mossad spot, and it turns out that she had been the “other woman” in Papa David’s life, making Ziva’s life even more tormented than it had been hitherto.

As it is customary in the life and maintenance of a series, the “arc” and plot are directed and run not only according to the constraints of the plot and the characters’ qualities, but by extraneous circumstances as well. Season 11 of “NCIS” was pretty well plotted and planned when Cote de Pablo decided to leave the series for reasons of her own, forcing the showrunner and executive producer, Gary Glasberg, to rewrite parts of it and round off Ziva’s part of the story (she goes back to Israel to deal with her father’s death; the two episodes depicting it in season 10 had record ratings, possibly due to Jewish viewers). He also had to introduce another female operative, since no procedural can manage with males alone. Some male-female bickering is an essential human spice in any series.

The producer and creator of the “NCIS” series is Donald P. Bellisario, who created the series “Magnum, P.I.,” “Airwolf,” “Quantum Leap” and “JAG.” “NCIS,” which is based, physically, in Washington DC, spawned two spinoffs itself: “NCIS Los Angeles,” now in its sixth season, with the diminutive and quirky female head of operations Hetty Lange, a legendary former intelligence agent with a mysterious past, and as of this season, we also have season 1 of “NCIS New Orleans.”

While Israeli viewers will be getting used to “NCIS” without Ziva and the Israeli angle, American viewers are already following Gibbs, DiNozzo, McGee and Abby when they tackle – brace yourself – pirates on the high seas, to justify the fact that basically (crime, personal story lines, law, order and sex getting their due) it is a Naval affair. So, anchors aweigh.