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TV Preview: 'Navy NCIS' attempts to cover new ground

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- When CBS was developing its new Tuesday night drama "Navy NCIS," the network referred to it as a "JAG" spin-off. It's from the same producer, and many of the characters were introduced in an episode of "JAG" earlier this year.

"Navy NCIS"

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS.

Starring: Mark Harmon.

"I always think of a spin-off being a show that duplicates exactly what's going on," said "NCIS" and "JAG" executive producer Donald P. Bellisario, a Cokeburg, Washington County, native, at a July CBS press conference. "You either take a character from that show and take them into the new show or you do what 'CSI' did: You take 'CSI' and put it in a different location with different people. This is not like that. It's a completely different show in its look, in its writing, in the way we're editing it."

He also dismissed comparisons to "CSI."

"It's not 'CSI' unless you're dyslexic," Bellisario said. "It's totally character driven. The procedural part of it is very small."

The "NCIS" stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which makes the show's full title "Navy Naval Criminal Investigative Service." This summer Bellisario said it would be shortened to "NCIS" after a short period of time. That hasn't happened yet, but he's hopeful it will at some point.

"They want 'JAG' viewers to try it out and to see what it is because people don't know what NCIS is," he said.

Bellisario learned all about the world of NCIS -- mostly civilians doing internal affairs investigations for the Navy -- when developing "JAG" almost a decade ago.

Bellisario praised Mark Harmon, who stars in "NCIS" as special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

"I am so lucky to have Mark Harmon as the lead," Bellisario said. "You have no idea. This cast is gold. Mark Harmon is a Middle American guy, even if he was raised in [Southern California]. His values are exactly the same as mine."

Harmon agreed, saying former Marine Bellisario is a straight-shooter, a rarity for the TV business.

"He would not know how to put a feather spear in your back," Harmon said in a phone interview earlier this month. "That's unusual.... I'm here on this project specifically to work with him."

Bellisario's series speak more to the heartland than so many shows that garner bigger ratings on the coasts. Bellisario's biggest audience is found in between.

"I understand middle America. I don't write New York angst," Bellisario said. "I'm not putting it down, I'm just not into that, and I write a certain character, and the values I write come out of that coal mining town I was born in, which was really European. Maybe that's why my shows have always been extremely popular in Europe. Where I was raised was all first-generation Americans. Everybody there was from the old country."

He also takes pride in writing about the military in a way that's not preparative.

"We have different values in the heartland," he said. "We're not as sophisticated as [those on the coasts], nor do we want to be."

Harmon's Gibbs supervises a team that includes former Secret Service agent Katie Todd (Sasha Alexander), former homicide detective Tony Dinozzo (Michael Weatherly), Goth forensics specialist Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) and medical examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum).

Although Bellisario says he's most interested in writing characters, he also likes to tease the audience. Gibbs' character has several ex-wives, and a mystery woman often pulls up in a sports car to pick him up after work.

"It will continue, but no one will ever know who she is," Bellisario said. "It [ticks] the audience off, but I gotta have some way to have fun and get back at some of the e-mails I get!"

On the set, Harmon is playful, too. In a recent episode, Gibbs playfully smacked Weatherly's Dinozzo on the back of the head, something Harmon didn't do in rehearsal.

"For me there's always a reason," Harmon said. He described another incident where he put a 15-pound weight in a bag he handed off to Alexander's Katie Todd, but he only put it in after rehearsal just before shooting the scene. "I don't make an effort to do that all the time, but when I think it's right, I might do it."

Bellisario praises the work of his team and expresses approval of the good time they're having making the show. A good working environment on "NCIS" might make it easier to add a third series to his workload. Bellisario has had conversations with Universal Studios about reviving "Quantum Leap." He envisions a new series with a young woman leaping through time, guided once again by Dean Stockwell.

"It's an all-new show. It's more of an update, more hip, although that was pretty hip for its time," Bellisario said.

And sometimes, with shows like "JAG" and "NCIS," it's hip to be square, too.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 . Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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