The US through a TV lens.


Previously published in the Irish Independent.

I was watching an episode of “NCIS” recently. You know “NCIS”, right? Actually, chances are you flicked through an episode if you were watching TV because it seems to be perpetually on one of the murder channels, yet have never watched it. 

A regular staple of American pensioners, “NCIS” can be watched as an intriguing insight into how mainstream middle America sees itself.

Every week is a collection of pre-baked tropes: a body is found, with some tenuous connection to the US Navy (NCIS is the Navy’s detective division). The victim used to be a marine or is wearing Old Spice or something.  

Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs and his team investigate. 

His younger more tech-savvy team try to explain evidence to him using technical terms that the audience can actually understand but Gibbs snarls at with a demand they “speak English”, on behalf of that section of the aging audience that keep accidentally taking photos of their ear with their “too fancy” smartphone.

Gibbs will berate any bureaucrat who tries to hinder him with nit-picking rules (like the Bill of Rights), and many investigations eventually lead to Gibbs and his team discovering that the simple murder they were investigating actually leads to a major terrorist plot, right up to a plot to murder the President or start a war with Russia, with NCIS the last line of national defence.

By the way, I do love the way during the show they announce themselves as “NCIS” to civilians who don’t go “And what’s that now? Is that some sort of transgender thing?”   

Occasionally, Gibbs and his team will travel abroad, where it is assumed that US law applies, and they have a right to carry out gun battles on foriegn streets and arrest the citizens of foriegn countries. 

The baddies are always punished, normally in a hail of bullets or by Gibbs threatening to send them to Guantanamo (to hell with pesky rules again), and the families of military personnel who die during the show are always looked after, especially if they have children. 

Except for Gibbs’ wife and child who were killed by a Mexican drug dealer whom Gibbs, a former Marine sniper, hunted down and killed, and has thus earned him the right to look off wistfully into the distance and build a boat in his basement. 

You know, working with wood. The sign of a real man. 

“NCIS” is basically the American version of “Midsomer Murders”. 

It rarely shocks, has a clear moral narrative, and is a comic version of how a country sees itself. Its star, Mark Harmon, is a 68 year old silver fox and he’s not even the oldest member of the cast. That’ll be David McCallum at 83. 

You can’t help thinking that all across America in nursing homes there are pensioners delighting at watching Gibbs kicking the tar out of men thirty years his junior without having “one of his falls” or needing his special tablets.  

It is also the number one TV drama on American network TV, and has been for the last ten of its eighteen years on the air, with one aspect of its appeal, I suspect, being its simple moral reassurance. The military, the flag, clear definition of good guys (The US and Israel) and bad guys (Arabs, slippery accented Europeans and the odd Russian), and loads of guns.

I’ve always been intrigued by how a society reflects itself in TV drama, especially that drama which doesn’t try to tell a warts and all story of itself, but instead tries to portray a reassuring picture of how the society would like to see itself. 

“NCIS” is watched by older, whiter and generally more conservative viewers, but even they are seeing in it what they want to see. Sure, it’s a show about the military. 

But it’s also a show about civil servants (albeit with guns) funded by taxes using said taxpayer funds to hunt down criminals, and with nearly every problem solved by the NCIS team using substantial amounts of taxes. 

Not that anyone ever says that in the show. They’re too busy blowing baddies away. 

A different take on America can be seen in the TV series “Homeland”, which had its final episode last week. For those unfamiliar, it was a show about a CIA operative (Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes) and her brilliant curmudgeon boss Saul Berenson, played by Mandy Patinkin, both giving captivating performances. It started out with the CIA battling Islamist extremists and their agents, before pivoting to the Russian threat in its final seasons. 

As a show it was superb at painting the current battle America is having with itself, as US political, state and media institutions are manipulated by America’s enemies, in one season reducing the first female president to powerlessness. 

Both characters are dedicated unashamedly Deep State public professionals who see their duty to the American republic as more important than their own family relationships or personal success, battling America’s enemies whilst side-stepping venal right wing commentators and weak pandering politicians. 

No show has managed to communicate America’s internal fall from grace better, still The Global Military Superpower and yet domestically an actual battleground for its enemies. 

Whilst both are fictional dramas to be taken with a pinch of salt, “Homeland” takes a much more nuanced view of where the US is. Both characters are ruthless in their defence of America, ordering special forces and drone strikes to kill threats to US security, and yet both regard the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as counter-productive political gimmicks that made the US less safe, not more. 

“Homeland” was less about goodies and baddies and more about morally ambivalent choices, right up to its final episode.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that “Homeland” was only seen by a fraction of the weekly US viewership of “NCIS”.  

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