Current cast members of “NCIS,” from left: Rocky Carroll, Pauley Perrette, David McCallum, Brian Dietzen, Mark Harmon, Emily Wickersham, Michael Weatherly and Sean Murray. CreditKevin Lynch/CBS
For a prime-time, scripted American television series to reach 300 episodes is a towering achievement. Fewer than 20 have done it. Yet attaining that milestone also practically guarantees a certain amount of disdain from the type of TV watcher who wants to project coolness. “Lassie.” “Bonanza.” “Law & Order.” “My Three Sons.” Square shows all, each in the 300 club.
On March 15, CBS’s “NCIS” joins them. It, too, is not trendy or a critical darling, but it is exceedingly popular. Some shows in the club were merely hanging around when they reached Episode 300, but not “NCIS.” For the past seven years, it has by most measures been TV’s most-watched drama, with an American audience of at least 20 million.
That’s a number that many of the most-talked-about shows can only fantasize about, an anomaly in a landscape that is increasingly fractured and full of shows aimed at one relatively narrow demographic or another. “We’re one of the last broadcast television shows that get a broad audience,” said George Schenck, who with his writing partner, Frank Cardea, has written about 40 “NCIS” episodes. “Everything else is so niche.”
Cast members of “NCIS” in 2003: From left, Mark Harmon, Sasha Alexander, Michael Weatherly, Pauley Perrette and David McCallum.CreditCliff Lipson/CBS
The two men have seen a lot of evolution in the industry — Mr. Schenck’s earliest TV credits are from the mid-1960s — and they, like most everyone else associated with the show, were surprised to find themselves riding a runaway hit.
“At the end of Season 1, they were passing out T-shirts, and George turned to me and said, ‘This is kind of presumptuous,’” Mr. Cardea recalled. The shirts, white with black lettering, read, “NCIS. Season 1.” Mr. Schenck thought that presumed a Season 2. The series is now in Season 13, and CBS has renewed it for at least two more.
“George proudly wears that shirt on the first day of production every year,” Mr. Cardea said.
Early on, it was by no means clear that “NCIS” would blossom, though it had the advantage of being a spinoff from the moderately successful legal drama “JAG,” which brought it a carry-over audience. The show centers on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a real-life law-enforcement agency few had heard of in 2003 but everyone knows now.
“NCIS” is essentially a police procedural — virtually every episode opens with a crime that somehow involves the Navy, with the team, led by Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs, generally cracking the case by the end of the hour. That puts it in the same class as other dramas in the 300 club: It is grounded in a proven formula, whether cop show (“Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), medical drama (“ER”), family melodrama (“Dallas,” “Knots Landing”) or western (“Gunsmoke,” the reigning champion at 635 episodes).
In its early seasons, “NCIS” was a decent, if not spectacular, performer. But something odd began to happen.
“I’d say we were in Season maybe 3, maybe 4,” recalled David Stapf, president of CBS TV Studios, “and I got a call from the head of our international division, and he said, ‘Hey, are you tracking what “NCIS” is doing overseas?’”
The show was catching on abroad, especially in France and Australia. Cast members noticed, too.
“In L.A., I’d say I was on ‘NCIS,’ and people would say, ‘Is that a radio station?’,” said Michael Weatherly, who plays the wisecracking agent Tony DiNozzo. But on a trip to France and Monte Carlo to promote Season 4, he found himself being widely recognized. “I thought they thought I was somebody else,” he said.
American viewers caught up not long after, partly thanks to the USA Network, which began running “NCIS” in syndication, and the writers’ strike of 2007-8, which drove viewers to cable and reruns. By the end of that season, “NCIS” was TV’s No. 5 drama; two seasons later, it was No. 1.
Consistency and engaging characters have kept it there. With the exception of “The Simpsons,” which is closing in on 600 episodes, don’t look for cutting-edge shows in the 300 club. They might flare brightly, but they wear out their welcome over time. There’s an art to making a series for the very long haul, and part of it is not setting your own bar so high in the early going that you can’t clear it. Another part is holding a lot back for exploration later, something everyone now involved with “NCIS” says was a gift Donald P. Bellisario, its creator and original showrunner, gave the series.
“Don didn’t get into the deep backgrounds in the early years of the show,” said Gary Glasberg, who has been with “NCIS” since 2009 and has been showrunner since 2011. “So we have the opportunity to go deeper in the latter years. If you look at procedural storytelling in general on TV, that’s a shift that’s happened across the board. You can look at your characters and their flaws and their mysteries and still solve a crime.”
Four actors have been with “NCIS” since the beginning: Mr. Harmon, Mr. Weatherly, David McCallum as the medical examiner known as Ducky, and Pauley Perrette as the forensic technician Abby Sciuto. For these actors and others who have had significant arcs, the gradual peeling of characters means both the challenge of incorporating back story that you didn’t know was there and the exhilaration of discovery. Ms. Perrette, for instance, has learned over the years that Abby, a goth geek, was adopted by deaf parents and has both a biological brother and an adoptive brother. And viewers still haven’t been inside her home.
“We’ve never seen where she lives; we’ve never found out how she ended up there,” Ms. Perrette said. “We’ve learned a lot, but there’s so much more to learn.”
“NCIS” detractors, most of whom have probably not watched many episodes, might think of the series as being the same week after week. But to say that “NCIS” is predictable or incapable of surprise is to mischaracterize it. Long before Jon Snow was left in a pool of blood on “Game of Thrones,” “NCIS” put a bullet through the head of Caitlin Todd, played by Sasha Alexander.
It was in the final moments of Season 2 in May 2005. Ms. Alexander, who played one of the six core members of the NCIS team, was leaving the show, and in a shocking finish that fans still talk about, a terrorist killed Todd, with a rifle shot. Since then, it hasn’t been safe to work for this fictional NCIS or know someone who does. An NCIS director, one of Gibbs’s ex-wives, Gibbs’s beloved mentor: All of them and more have been killed over the years. Which brings us to another key to reaching 300 episodes: knowing how to capitalize on the inevitable cast turnover.
The show’s biggest challenge to date in that regard has been the departure of Cote de Pablo, whose character, Ziva David, essentially replaced Ms. Alexander’s and stayed into Season 11. Ziva was the most assertive female character the show has seen, and her simmering will-they-or-won’t-they relationship with Tony dominated chat boards. No sniper zeroed in on Ziva; she just faded away, which turned out to be a smart choice, because now Mr. Weatherly has announced that the current season will be his last. The tease of a possible reunion between Tony and Ziva has been driving “NCIS” chatter for weeks.
At the center of it all, of course, is Mr. Harmon, who has been able to enjoy the rare sight of a television staff that isn’t living season to season, renewal to renewal.
“It’s been gratifying over the years that the majority of these people know they have a job to come back to after July,” he said. “You’re hearing people plan their vacation. You’re hearing about people buying the boat they always wanted. That part has been really special.”