A moderately entertaining spin-off of NCIS (which itself spun-off from the long-defunct JAG), NCIS: Los Angeles is a counter-intelligence/police procedural series much too enamored of its high-tech gadgets and Michael Bay-style cutting, which gets in the way of some potentially interesting character relationships. On the plus side, the vagueness of NCIS itself - the acronym stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service but might just as well be TGG, i.e., "The Good Guys" - its mission, its relationship to other law enforcement and military operations, its ultimate legal authority, allow for a wide range of crime stories: kidnappings, international terrorist attacks, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, etc.
It's a slick, expensive-looking show. (How much do shows like this cost these days? Several million an episode at least, I'd wager.) By design Los Angeles is made to look far more glamorous and inviting than it actually is. Star Chris O'Donnell's character, for instance, lives off the overused-by-Hollywood Santa Monica Pier, a colorful touristy destination, and many episodes are filmed in tony places like Malibu, Marina del Rey, and Newport Beach. You don't see too many shows set in South El Monte.
With five discs expertly packed into an impressively slim, single plastic case the size of a regular, single-disc Blu-ray one, NCIS: Los Angeles - The First Season is handsomely presented with strong video and audio, loads of extra features, and colorful and easy-to-use menu designs. In other words, an excellent job all-around.*
The characters of NCIS: Los Angeles were introduced in a two-part story arc on NCIS, "Legend," which aired in April and early-May 2009. Those are gratefully included on Disc 1, so you really get 26 episodes instead of the 24 listed in the packaging. As someone completely new to the JAG/NCIS universe, I found the crossover episodes totally confusing but worthwhile. Once everyone settles into their jobs, a few episodes into the series proper, NCIS: Los Angeles begins to take shape. Stationed at their top-secret headquarters, which resembles a trendy L.A. eatery minus the cuisine, are the following special agents: G. Callen (Chris O'Donnell, the character unaware of his own first name), predictably antiestablishment (though as Sergei Hasenecz notes, "If he's working for a secret government/military/law-enforcement organization, I'd say his anti-establishment bona fides are severely lacking"); former Navy SEAL Sam Hanna (LL Cool J), G's partner; expert psychologist Nate "Doc" Getz (Peter Cambor), who can instantly (and unbelievably) gauge a suspects emotions and psychological makeup; sexy forensics investigator Kensi Blye (Daniela Rush), who spends as much time in the field as in the lab; Eric Beal (Barrett Foa), computer geek and surfer dude (a hard-to-swallow combo) nestled in NCIS's monitoring center; rookie agent Domic Vail (Adam Jamal Craig), eager-to-please; and mysterious, eccentric, but charming Operations Manager Hetty Lange (Linda Hunt).
The series is technophilic to the point of madness. The actors interact with keyboards, cell phones, and touch-screens almost more than their flesh and blood co-stars. In the first few shows, a big deal is made of the "Big Board" (as George C. Scott called similar large monitors in Dr. Strangelove), with various characters sweeping, swooshing, and manipulating various computer images from one monitor to another. This extravagant gesturing soon becomes comical. (As it was for real when CNN's overzealous anchors did exactly the same thing during the 2008 Presidential Campaign.)
The dramatic pitfalls of having characters constantly huddle around computers or in front of large projection screens while listening to one another on cellphones and via hidden microphones is compensated by an unrealistically effortless use of this technology. Need to find a particular Red 1968 Mustang with a dented rear fender among the millions of cars on L.A.'s roads? Just punch a few buttons and LA County's CCTV, orbiting satellites, DMV records, and Google Earth are at your instant disposal, and NCIS's super-computers will do the rest.
In short, critical information that would realistically take a lot of time to gather, even with high-tech computers manipulated by expert fingertips, generally takes about half-a-second on NCIS: Los Angeles. What would these guys do if their servers suddenly crashed and their computers froze?
The accelerated pace extends everywhere, not just to the action set pieces but even simple footage of the team standing around discussing NCIS's sexual harassment policies. There's much too much cutting - it must really frustrate actors - reflecting the ruinous influence of frantic but artless hack directors like Michael Bay and others, giving the shows like this their attention-deficit disorder pacing.
While its characters are genre clichés, the actors playing them are reasonably appealing, even O'Donnell, who at 40 has matured from cardboard pretty boy to an actor with a bit more weight and some potential. Except for Linda Hunt, who comes off effortlessly interesting in most everything she does, the rest of the cast don't get much chance to flesh out their characters. This reviewer was surprised to see Chas. Floyd Johnson listed as one of the producers. Johnson's earlier successes, The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I., were notable for placing characterizations ahead of action and even story. There's none of that richness here, though the teleplays almost seem to be yearning for a chance to do more, convey richer characterizations, and less trite patter and technology.
Still, NCIS: Los Angeles isn't bad TV comfort food. Episodes occasionally generate some real suspense, and the high production values give each 42-minute episode the feel of a mini-movie. From a technical standpoint, the series is extremely impressive.
Touch that screen!
Video & Audio
Filmed in high-definition video, NCIS: Los Angeles looks great in its 1080p, 1.78:1 HD aspect ratio, with the City of Los Angeles positively oozing with warm summery colors and in incredible detail, to boot. (I often freeze-framed the many aerial shots, looking for old apartments and favorite hangouts.) Audio is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with an alternate French Surround mix and supported by English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The audio is loud and lively, again approaching the mixing one finds in theatrical features. The 24/26 42-minute episodes are spread over five discs, most also containing extra features.
Supplements include the usual VAM (value-added-material) one finds with concurrently airing television series, lightweight visual press kits but entertaining featurettes fans will enjoy: "Inspired Television: NCIS: LA," "The L.A. Team: Meet the Cast and Crew," "Inside the Inner Sanctum: The Set Tour," "Do You Have a Visual? Inside the OPS Center," and "Lights, Camera ... ACTION! The Stunts of NCIS: LA." All are in standard-def.
Also included is an LL Cool J music video and making of same, also in standard-def; CBS promos; a commentary track from series creator Shane Brennan, and BD-Live features.
Though not exactly won over, NCIS: Los Angeles entertains just enough that I'm still watching, and the Blu-ray set itself can't be faulted, as the show looks great and the extra features and packaging are well above average. Recommended.
* But where's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation's missing seasons? This set had me yearning for Blu-ray discs of that superior show.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.