First posted on The Writing of a Wisoker on the Loose, 2/7/2011
I have been a fan of the original NCIS series for some time; have watched all the episodes, most of them multiple times. And I’m about to stop watching–over one episode. (It’s relevant to writing, I promise; bear with me.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, NCIS actually stands for “Naval Criminal Investigative Service”. The show follows the work of a gutsy team of folks who solve the murders of Navy personnel, and the subplots as the characters’ personal lives intrude on the investigation tend to be very funny or thought-provoking. There’s Gibbs, the leader, a hard-ass Marine who cuts his team no slack and outsiders even less; Tony DiNozo, the charmer-playboy and movie buff; Timothy McGee, the computer geek, best-selling writer, and clumsy-puppy hopeless on anything romantic; and Abby, the Goth lab tech/computer hacker who will run a DNA test on everyone in the office to find out who ate half of her lunch. There are other characters, but those are the relevant ones in this particular episode.
The subplot involved McGee having his identity stolen to the tune of ten thousand dollars, mainly video games and the odd osteoporosis aid. His first hint of the theft is an embarrassing inflatable female doll that arrives at his desk, with the invoice pointing to his credit card as the payment source. DiNozo laughs at him and makes the expected jokes; Gibbs walks in and orders everyone out on a murder investigation.
Now. Nobody, throughout this episode, shows anything but amusement over the fact that a member of the team has been significantly compromised; whoever stole McGee’s identity not only has McGee’s credit card information, but also his driver’s license and social security number, knows where McGee lives, knows where he works, and has rung up, as noted, ten thousand dollars in fraudulent charges.
I have a problem with that. McGee doesn’t work for McDonald’s–he works for a high-tech criminal investigative service, one where he has access to sensitive and confidential information. Having his identity stolen ought to be a very big deal for everyone on the team and especially for Gibbs. Abby, the fiercely protective lab tech who long ago had a relationship with McGee, definitely ought to be lifting fingerprints and running computer checks, and McGee himself, as a premier computer hacker, ought to be able to track down lots of information on whodunit within the hour. (What computer location are all the games being downloaded to? Where was the osteoporosis aid sent to?)
They do this kind of thing ALL THE TIME, for heaven’s sake. McGee can hack into the Pentagon if he wants to. They’ve tracked geniuses playing tech head games and stopped terrorist plots in their tracks. But instead of seeing McGee show his smarts, we’re treated to a few shots of McGee whining on the phone to the credit card company and moping around the office while Tony teases him unmercifully.
Next, there’s the end of the subplot. Tony takes the initiative and tracks down the culprit, who turns out to be the fourteen year old son of McGee’s landlady (thus the kid had access to the keys–which is another thing I have a problem with, but I won’t go there). The kid, when Tony brings him INTO THE NCIS OFFICES to meet McGee, shows absolutely no remorse. He states, more or less, “Dude, come on, it’s fraud. You only owe the credit card company like fifty bucks.” When asked why he did it, he tells McGee that (again paraphrasing by what I recall) “Dude, you have no life, you go to work and come home, go to work and come home. You need to have some fun once in a while.” And Tony, laughing, agrees with that statement. Tony then says, “Let’s go out to the computer game store and I’ll buy you some games on the way home” –and invites McGee along. McGee starts to say he has work to do; Tony and the kid mock him for being a workaholic, and McGee gives in. They head off to the game store; end of episode.
Oh. My. God. Any kid who breaks into a neighbor’s apartment and steals his identity is not doing so to teach the guy a lesson about having some fun once in a while. Any kid who, when caught with such a massive crime, displays that level of unconcern and attitude — is not cute, he’s a fucking sociopath. If he’s stealing from one tenant, he’s stealing from more than one tenant; it’s absolutely asinine to suggest that it’s appropriate to take him out to the video game store after getting caught for a major crime. It’s a character-killing move to suggest that McGee would be so easily shamed into tacticly endorsing a crime. It’s absurd to imagine that the kid wouldn’t be led away in handcuffs. I could go on for an hour.
If this show were more about slapstick humor — I’m thinking “Two and a Half Men” here — this subplot would be stupid but unremarkable. In a largely serious show about the consequences of misdeeds coming home to roost, it’s as out of place as a nude bisexual polygamist at a Westboro Baptist Church service.
“But it’s a TV show!” my husband protested. “So it has a thin plot this week. So what? It’s TV.”
Oh-kay. (I didn’t, for the record, try to kill him. I was good. Aren’t you proud of me?)
Writers tend, at a certain level of — let’s call it commitment to improving their craft — to go postal over stuff ordinary people don’t see a problem with. It’s valuable to know, as a writer, where your “screw this” point lies. When you react as strongly to a plot problem or character flaw as I did above, that ought to be a red flag: use that moment of rage as a cue to make sure you’re not doing that in your own writing, for one thing. Figure out if shows or books that you normally enjoy are similarly flawed–and avoid them like the plague to avoid inviting that taint into your own writing. You might find that your anger is sourced from the fact that you’re getting better as a writer, which inevitably leads to a growing awareness of problems in your formerly favorite shows and books. It may well be time to move on and find better models to learn from.
As a writer, I take my craft seriously, and while I allow for a lot of flaws in TV shows and books alike, the one thing I won’t endure is a stupid plot arc for supposedly brilliant characters. Now I know to watch out for that in my own writing. Just as a superb fighter shouldn’t be taken down by a kid with a wiffle bat, a smart character should be really hard to flummox.
I’m sad that NCIS is flatlining; I’m happy that I learned something valuable today, and was able to get a blog post out of it. Like everything else….a mixed blessing.
*Note: I took a chance and watched a couple more episodes after this stinker and it does seem to have gotten back on track. So maybe there is hope after all…but it’s still a reminder of how fragile a thing real creativity is, and how easily a carefully built up reputation is ruined….
[EDIT AS OF 11/24/2015: I’ve been catching up on the show again when I have a chance, and there appears to be a reasonable trend back to sanity. The characters still irritate the hell out of me on a regular basis, especially Tony; the spots where they get it wrong are still obnoxious (the ep with Abby playing that hideous mockup of an MORPG comes to mind)–but there’s enough charm left to the basic cast and premise–barely–to keep me hanging on a bit longer. 🙂