Culture Magazine

NCIS, Boundary Issues: Terrorism, Sexual Harassment, and Rambling on

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been watching a lot of NCIS and wondering why it’s perhaps the most popular show on network TV. It’s a crime show, and crime shows have a long and deep history on television, in the movies, and in fiction. What are such shows about? Abstractly considered, they’re about a boundary, the boundary between actions that legitimate and those that are not. Criminals are those who transgress that boundary in some way and police are those who restore the boundary by catching criminals.
Moreover, NCIS came on the air in September of 2003, two years after 9/11. And 9/11, of course, put terrorism at the top of America’s attention vector. What is terrorism but a specific class of boundary violations. While ordinary criminal activity is mostly undertaken for the private benefit of the criminals, terrorism is done to damage the body politic, to make citizens feel that they are not safe. Moreover, the bombing of the World Trade Center was done by foreign nationals and so violates the nation’s territorial integrity.
A good many NCIS episodes are about terrorists. I don’t have a count, but let’s say it’s a third of them. When the NCIS agents apprehend a terrorist they not only restore the body politic in the way the capture of any criminal does, but they restore the integrity of the nation as well. Surely this part of the show’s appeal.
But there’s something much more subtle and interesting in NCIS, for boundary issues are written into the texture of the show in the way people interact with one another.
Consider one of the central characters, Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He is a bit of a bully, wise guy, and sexual harasser. He’s real prick, but good at heart (of course). I don’t know how many times I’ve winced at his intrusive and harassing remarks. And I’m certainly not the only one. The Wikipedia article on DiNozzo remarks that “Tony was often criticized by the female audience at the beginning of the show's run for his chauvinism.” What is sexual harassment if not violating someone’s personal boundaries?
But that’s not the only kind of boundary violation in the show. The three characters who are more or less intellectual – the medical examiner, the forensic specialist, and another Special Agent – tend to ramble on about technical matters. Gibbs, head of the team and the show’s central character, will ask one of them what’s going and they’ll start rambling on about this that and the other, mostly technical matters leading up to an eventual conclusion, until Gibbs cuts them off and demands, What’s the point? He’s clearly annoyed and so, I strongly suspect, is the audience. I know I am.
This is a kind of boundary violation. Gibb’s wants know this or that so he can push the investigation further. He trusts their technical competence (very important) and doesn’t care about the detail. It’s his sense of the whole investigation sets the boundaries on these conversation. Technical details violate those boundaries.
Consider Ducky, Dr. Donald Mallard, the Medical Examiner. He’s very good – they all are (this, after all, is TV) – but easily lost in details. Not only that, but he often starts meandering through old cases or even wanders into his army days. He’s British and resembles Higgins, from Magnum P.I., in this respect. His assistant ME (for most of the show’s run), Jimmy Palmer, is also a rambler.
And so it goes with Abby Sciuto, the Forensic Specialist and Timothy McGee, another Special Agent. McGee’s MIT graduate, and expert in computers. This contrasts with DiNozzo, who is an athlete from Ohio State. DiNozzo has his own form of rambling, not on technical matters, but movie references. He’s forever comparing current events to movies he’s seen, to the annoyance of just about everyone.
In contrast, the two female agents, Caitlin Todd (first two seasons) and Ziva David (seasons 3-11), never ramble on. But they are the primary objects of DiNozzo’s sexist remarks.
And of course Gibbs doesn’t ramble, and neither do the two long term NCIS directors, Jenny Shepard (season 3-5) and Leon Vance (season 6 to the present). These are authority figures. It is thus their job to keep things on track. Gibbs, though, doesn’t always do things by the book, which the directors know. Gibbs has a freedom to maneuver that the directors, by virtue of their position, do not.
The analytic trick, it seems to me, is to make sense of collection of characters and their characteristics. While rambling is generally associated to intellectuality and maleness, Abby rambles and is female, while DiNozzo rambles and is male. But DiNozzo’s rambling is about films, not about technical issues pertaining to evidence; that differentiates him from Ducky, McGee, and Abby. Abby has a goth persona, with tattoos (which are mostly just talked about) and funky taste in clothing while Caitlin and Ziva are more, well, standard/mainstream. She is also effusive while the other two women are not.
There is a logic here, myth logic I call it, but it’s not yet clear to me what’s going on.
I think it calls for some more rambling.
More later.

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