Some of you know I’m a big NCIS fan — as if the weekly NCIS Day McMayhem warning on Twitter wasn’t enough of a clue. I’m a fan in part because for all the attention cable dramas get, NCIS does some damn good storytelling, and has been doing it fairly consistently for almost nine years now. One of my favorite parts of the week is looking at the writing of the episode the next day with my friend Sandy. This morning, I decided to share my thoughts a little more widely because I think last night’s episode demonstrated the fine line between telling an authentically good story and using writerly sleight-of-hand to make you think it was a good story.
If you don’t want spoilers for NCIS 09.12, Housekeeping, stop here. Otherwise…
On the good NCIS episodes — and that’s the vast majority of most episodes most seasons — I find myself liking it more as I think about it after watching or as I rewatch. One hallmark of the show has always been laying in information that might show up months or years later. Just ask longtime fans about last season’s Vance and Eli-centric Enemies Domestic, which tied up elements from various episodes over four seasons into a package so neatly I was speechless for a good five minutes after the episode ended. Last season’s Baltimore was also a good example as we flashed back to when Tony and Gibbs first met when Tony was a Baltimore cop.
Steve Binder, who wrote Baltimore, talked to TV Guide about his process of taking the characters back 10 years in time, to see them two years before the show’s beginning. He started with an idea that everything we thought we knew about the character was wrong — he hadn’t always been the way we’ve seen him on the show — and then went on to write an episode where we see Baltimore Tony and NCIS Tony and exactly what happened to create the shift that turned one into the other. It was masterfully done because it was consistent with what we had seen of the character over eight years, it cast several things we had assumed in a different light and it added greater depth and dimension — and thus growth — to a character who had been in 180+ episodes at that point.
Again this season, we saw that with Penelope Papers by Nicole Mirante-Matthews. That was a McGee-centric episode where we learned that a common assumption — he was the only one on the team who didn’t have issues with his father — was completely wrong. Again, it was consistent with the McGee we had seen for eight seasons and it cast a lot of earlier interactions between him and others, especially Gibbs, in a different light. Depth, dimension and growth.
Enemies Foreign and Enemies Domestic, the Jesse Stern two-parter last season, did the same thing with two characters — Vance and Eli. More information, consistent with what we knew, changed the way we interpreted certain things. It’s one of the benefits of writing in a series — you have the ability to use everything in the past to help evolve characters into the future.
But the common element to all of those episodes, all masterfully written, is that they used what was already in canon — already out there — and worked with that to create the evolution. The events, the reactions of the characters and the change in the characters and our perceptions of them grew from those characters. You could step away, mull things over and end up appreciating the writing and the episode that much more because all the pieces fit together. As a writer, I could see the way the effects were created and could appreciate the skill it took to pull them off.
I was reminded of that after watching Housekeeping because to me, it had the opposite effect. The more I thought, the more I picked apart the pieces, the less I liked it. The phone call at the end felt like an artificial trick to keep tension going between Tony and Ziva. The sequence of events with Gibbs giving SecNav fake information, his buddy passing the fake information on to Stratton, Stratton using that to walk into a trap and then Gibbs getting Stratton in interrogation only to have him throw Mexico in Gibbs’ face all felt like it was a little too orchestrated — especially since Vance was nowhere to be found. The length of time at the beginning before EJ was identified and the cutting between the lab and the scene felt too spun out. All of those pieces can work well in the hands of a good writer. But this time, they didn’t. At least not for me.
After Swan Song last season, I asked Jesse Stern when he chose the Hamlet’s ghost approach for Mike Franks rather than the more traditional take of leaving his death a surprise until the end. He said a surprise didn’t feel like the character and it felt manipulative. Now, it’s no secret Jesse’s one of my favorite writers. But that statement is part of why I think so highly as him as a writer. That episode could have been ugly. By all rights, should have been ugly. It took genuine skill to make the Hamlet’s Ghost approach work, and it did. Keeping who died a secret until the end? He’s right — that would have felt manipulative. And that’s how I feel after watching Housekeeping. Like a writer used a lot of smoke and mirrors to spin a web that enthralled me — until the credits started rolling and I started thinking about it. The more I think, the more holes I see in the story. Actions and reactions that worked in the story didn’t seem consistent with the characters as a whole.
It’s a difficult challenge we face as writers. We all have the same tools in our toolbox. We’ve read a lot of the same advice books, learned from many of the same writers, dissecting how they made stories work. We steal from others, hopefully well. But in the end, the stories we tell have to be authentic. Otherwise, it’s all just a bag of tricks.