Posted 1/10/2005 10:07 PM Updated 1/11/2005 12:25 AM 'NCIS': CBS' invisible success By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY VALENCIA, Calif. Here's a pop quiz. NCIS is: NCIS' Mark Harmon, Sasha Alexander and Michael Weatherly stake out a crime scene. CBS A. JAG Jr. B. A CSI clone. C. A rising CBS hit, ranked 15th this season among prime-time shows. The 14.4 million fans who regularly watch NCIS (which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service) know the answer is C. They are attracted to a mix of drama, humor and relationships intertwined in stories of the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over Navy and Marine Corps matters, covering everything from murder to terrorism. But it's not hard to understand why others might confuse the second-year series with military drama JAG or a procedural show such as CSI. NCIS was created by JAG executive producer Donald Bellisario, most of its characters were introduced on JAG, and the series inherited that show's time slot. Its high-tech forensics lab, sophisticated computer technology and regular samplings of gore fit the procedural profile. The coincidental similarity of initials between NCIS and CSI just adds to any confusion. But talk to anyone on the set of NCIS, which returns with new episodes tonight (8 ET/PT), and you get a passionate explanation of how the show has an identity separate from those other hits. "They're very different shows by design," says Mark Harmon, who leads the ensemble as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. "When I first looked at it, what jumped out to me were the characters and humor." "JAG is a lawyer show. Our show is a character-driven, action/crime drama," says Sasha Alexander (Presidio Med), who plays Caitlin Todd, a Secret Service agent who jumped over to NCIS in the first episode. "The show's not what people think it is," Bellisario says. "The biggest thing is that people tagged it as a JAG spinoff. In this town (Hollywood), I come up against that all the time. I ask, 'Have you seen it? Why don't you watch it?' " Many people are. And, though NCIS doesn't have the pull with young adults (18 to 49) that the hottest shows do, those numbers are up substantially. Man From U.N.C.L.E. legend David McCallum, who plays offbeat medical examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard, has noticed increasing recognition of NCIS on his frequent flights back home to New York. "When I get up, I get smiles and nods and somebody says, 'Hi, Ducky. Nice to see you,' " he says. Older fans often offer an addendum: "I loved you 40 years ago." Bellisario, a Marine Corps vet who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, has long stood out in Hollywood for his embrace of military themes. He wanted for some time to do a show about NCIS, a little-known agency with fascinating potential because of its broad jurisdiction in crime and geography. Playing down military ties Episodes explore a range of topics, including suspected drug use on a ship, smuggling at a Cuban detention center, trafficking in stolen Iraqi art and a Medal of Honor recipient's (Charles Durning) confession to a killing 60 years ago on Iwo Jima. Despite the military ties (CBS saddled it with the redundant title Navy NCIS last year), Bellisario wanted to play down that angle to create distance from JAG, an aging hit that struck big in the heartland but never registered on the buzz-mographs in New York and L.A. To differentiate NCIS, he tried to make it distinctive visually and musically. Each act opens with a black-and-white foreshadowing of a later part of the scene. Making the crime lab whiz a Goth chick (Abby, played by Pauley Perrette) gave an immediate signal that this was not your father's JAG. The moves appear to be working. As with many CBS hits, the sheer power of high ratings, rather than some wow factor, is lifting NCIS from under the media radar. "In a very democratic way, the people have spoken. The buzz comes from out there," says Michael Weatherly (Dark Angel), who plays competent but immature agent Anthony DiNozzo. Still, NCIS has only a fraction of the fanfare of a show such as ABC's Lost, which was only two spots ahead of it in household ratings as of the end of 2004. "If it's not a young and sexy show, (the press doesn't) talk about it," says Steve Sternberg of Magna Global USA. But NCIS "is one of CBS' strongest shows." Time-slot foe American Idol, which took a bite out of NCIS' ratings last year, could do so again when it returns Jan. 18, but Sternberg doesn't expect a sizable loss. CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl says NCIS' success isn't surprising, but the size of the jump this season in viewers and young adults is. "This show has some distinctive things going for it, a strong sense of humor and a lot of banter between characters," Kahl says. "This unit of characters is a lot tighter than you see on other shows. They talk a little like we do around the office." Interaction important NCIS generally reveals its characters' traits through their office relationships. It focuses on just one case per episode to allow increased interaction for the team, which added another agent, Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), a wet-behind-the-ears computer expert, in its first season. In one episode, when an exasperated Kate says DiNozzo and McGee remind her of her brothers, Gibbs throws her off balance by saying, "That explains a lot." Vicki Stansbury, 45, of Pangburn, Ark., a big Harmon fan, enjoys the relationships, which gain depth by the show's use of humor. "I like the way (Gibbs and DiNozzo) play off each other. I like the way Kate plays off DiNozzo," says Stansbury. "You've got to be serious about your work, but you have to have comic relief." With his own Magnum, P.I. for comparison, Bellisario likens Gibbs to Thomas Magnum, the leader of the band, and Ducky to the crankier Higgins, a wise, older, idiosyncratic figure. "Ducky likes to tell people about his life," McCallum says. Bellisario didn't originally have Harmon in mind, remembering him from earlier roles and thinking he was wrong for Gibbs, a flinty type with a strong sense of honor and respect for the military. After seeing a tape of Harmon's work as a Secret Service agent on The West Wing, "I said, 'Oh, my God, he's Gibbs.' He had matured. He's good-looking in a totally different way than he was as a young guy." Character quirks The NCIS family members have their quirks, too. The thrice-married Gibbs, a military veteran, can't go anywhere without a cup of coffee in his hand. "I was attracted by (his) flaws," Harmon says. "He has lousy taste in women. He's addicted to coffee." And the tattooed Abby, the presumed slacker who is anything but, is Bellisario's not-what-she-appears-to-be tribute to Magnum, a functioning, well-balanced Vietnam vet who contrasted many depictions of the era. "Don wanted to do Abby as an alternative-lifestyle person, but not as a junkie or a thief," Perrette says. "She might be the smartest person on television." Beyond the characters, NCIS offers playful allusions about its cast. In one recent episode, kids are tossing a football outside a shooting scene when Gibbs Harmon's a former UCLA quarterback picks up the ball and lofts a pass to one of the boys. In an upcoming episode, Kate asks Gibbs what Ducky looked like as a younger man. "Gibbs looks at him and says to her, 'Illya Kuryakin,' " Bellisario says.