When it comes to reviews on new shows premiering on Tuesday, Sept. 22, I've already done lengthy write-ups of ABC's "The Forgotten" and CBS' "The Good Wife." This review for CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles" is going to be a good deal shorter.
"The Forgotten" and "The Good Wife" are both unknown quantities and "NCIS: Los Angeles" is very much the opposite. It spun off from and airs after "NCIS," a show so formidable it hardly blinks in the face of "American Idol." As the general industry viewership trend has been heading downward, "NCIS" has been moving upward.
People love "NCIS," even if the hype has never matched the audience size. And although I'm not a regular (or even semi-regular) "NCIS" viewer, I can say that in the time's I've watched it for a guest star or to see a cliffhanger, it's rarely been less than diverting.
That brings me to "NCIS: Los Angeles," since the two worst "NCIS" episodes I've personally watched were "Legend," parts one and two, the backdoor pilot for the spinoff series.
So is "NCIS: Los Angeles" more like regular "NCIS" or more like those two spinoff episodes?
[Review after the break...]
I can just cut straight to the important stuff: In its actual series incarnation, "NCIS: Los Angeles" is a lot like "NCIS." The characters seem to like each other and they seem to enjoy joking with each other. You learn the tiniest pieces of information about the characters and their lives, but not enough to be a distraction. The action is fast-paced and sometimes just a bit cheesy. And the cases? Well, they hardly matter, do they? Somebody gets killed. A brief investigation ensues. There's a shootout. Like "NCIS," "NCIS: Los Angeles" is a retro action series that would be just as well-suited for the mid-70s or mid-80s.
As you'll recall from the backdoor pilot, "NCIS: Los Angeles" focuses on undercover surveillance agents for Los Angeles' Office of Special Projects division of NCIS. Chris O'Donnell, James Todd Smith (you may know him as Ladies Love Cool James) and Daniela Ruah play the relevant field agents, with Adam Jamal Craig and Barrett Foa as the tech geeks, Peter Cambor as their Operational Psychologist and Linda Hunt (absent from the pilot) as their boss Hetty Lange.
You'll recall O'Donnell's character, Special Agent G. Callen -- What does the "G" stand for? He doesn't know either -- getting gunned down in the spring "NCIS" episode. Am I spoiling anything to say that since O'Donnell is in all of the posters for the show and has been appearing in all of the on-air promotion, Callen wasn't killed? I mean, O'Donnell's not playing the guy's twin brother or his ghost. He gets better. I'm sorry if that ruined things for you.
So Callen's back, but he's got a bit of PTSD. He returns to the job just as his department is conveniently moving over to a new office. The old offices from the backdoor pilot were boring and forgettable, but the new offices are done up in a Spanish mission style that's both ludicrous and distinctive. It looks far better than the offices on the original "NCIS" and I'm not just saying that because I've been on both sets and, lemme assure you, the "NCIS: Los Angeles" set is many times posher.
Expecting O'Donnell to become a substantive actor at this stage in his career is probably folly, but he has a [tremendously] low-wattage easy charm that's a nice contrast with LL Cool J's muscular intensity. Their rapport isn't bad and I can imagine it improving if the writers find O'Donnell's strengths. Also providing hints of comedy are Cambor and the two geeks. "NCIS: Los Angeles" isn't exactly jokey, but it continues the tone of a franchise that's never taken itself as seriously as the CBS' Bruckheimer shows or "Criminal Minds."
Being in Los Angeles allows the spinoff to get good use out of the city, rather than using locations in the Valley as poor stand-ins as they do on the original series. Although plenty of time is spend on parts of the Paramount lot, the production gets out and about in the city and the ability to work in some real neighborhoods and to have the ambient light right is a tremendous advantage.
Mostly, it's all regulation grade "NCIS" from there. It's a stylistic hodge-podge. The opening action sequence was almost nauseatingly jittery and aggressively edited. But a later scene is relayed mostly in choppy close-ups in a way that would have fit perfectly on an old episode of "Starsky and Hutch" or something.
Hunt's addition to the cast may be what makes the show. As the fussy, enthusiastic, detail-oriented team leader, she's basically playing a more militaristic version of Edna Mode from "The Incredibles" and that is, as we say, the part she was born to play. The character comes equipped with a handy selection of footstools and an obsession with expense reports and with Hunt's trademark tartness. She's not being fully utilized yet -- Let's get Linda Hunt strapped with a gun and out in the field -- but seeing this Oscar winner sharing scenes with LL Cool J is more than just a nifty sight-gag.
If, by some bizarre twist of the TV fates, "NCIS: Los Angeles" flops? I'd watch a Hunt/LL series. "Linda Loves Cool James"? It'd be better than "Accidentally on Purpose."
"NCIS: Los Angeles" premieres at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22 on CBS.