In 2003 one of the longest-running shows on American TV debuted: NCIS. As previously detailed on this site, the more recent documents reveal the relationship between the military and the NCIS producers as a true family – close, but sometimes hostile and dysfunctional. A file liberated from the Marine Corps archive at Quantico reveals that this was always the case, and that the 20 year relationship got off to a pretty rocky start.
The NCIS concept and characters were introduced to audiences via a process known as ‘backdooring’, where a spin-off is set up through an established show. A pair of episodes of season eight of JAG, a series keenly supported by the Marine Corps, featured the characters that would make up the NCIS core cast when the new series premiered months later. The New Orleans and Los Angeles spin-offs from the original NCIS series were backdoored in the same way.
This is how a mega-producer like Don Bellisario, the creator of Quantum Leap (supported by the DOD in a handful of episodes), JAG and NCIS (both made with intense and constant military involvement) creates a televisual universe. Predictably, Bellisario himself is a Marine Corps veteran, and has spoken about basing NCIS episodes on real life events.
The file liberated from Quantico by Roger Stahl shows how the Marines were invited to give feedback on early episode scripts, starting with 001 titled ‘Yankee White’. The Marine Corps weren’t asked for formal production support until January 2004 but they began reviewing the scripts in the summer of 2003. NCIS is now up to 450 episodes, and the overwhelming majority have been vetted and often modified by military officials.
Among the Marines who got to read and rewrite NCIS teleplays were Captain Josh Rushing, deputy director of their entertainment liaison office and one who later expressed regret about his role in Hollywood, Major Brad Bartelt, director of the office and, in later years, his replacement Major Jeff Nyhart and 1st Lt Christy Kercheval, who was later promoted to Captain while still working at the office. Oh, and Phil Strub got involved from the DOD’s side, naturally.
Military Problems with NCIS Scripts
The feedback on early scripts was largely just rubber stamping scripts that had already been rewritten by the Navy, but had to be run by the Marines due to containing some depiction of the Corps. However, when it came to episode 012 ‘My Other Left Foot’, Bellisario wanted to film a Light Armoured Vehicle and a squad of Marines on the NCIS set, so Rushing had to do the full script review himself. In the story, a Marine dies due to a cocaine overdose so Rushing’s email requested they insert dialogue:
Coke-induced, I‘ll bet. It’s sad, but even the Corps has its occasional bad apple.
This logic of writing off any illegal or immoral behaviour by a member of the military (or NSA, CIA, FBI) as a mere ‘bad apple’ will be familiar to many of you, because you’ve seen it over and over again in films and TV. Even Rushing acknowledged it was a cliché back then, adding:
[Feel free to change the wording, but retain the sentiment]
Somewhat charmingly, he also mentions how his wife, Paige, ‘TIVOs the show every week and loves it! It’s her favourite show on TV right now.’ While I cannot speak for Paige’s taste in television, one has to wonder at the strange position this put Rushing in, whereby he was professionally responsible for censoring a show his wife was then watching when he got home.
The DOD signed off on the Marine Corps support to ‘My Other Left Foot’ but for some reason followed up with an extensive memo criticising the series to date, and questioning whether military production assistance should continue. The Marine Corps responded a couple of weeks later with their own critical memo – presumably these were forwarded to the Navy, who were the primary source of support on NCIS, the real-life NCIS being part of the Navy.
The DOD memo states:
Despite the show‘s obvious commercial success it provides little or no public information, recruiting or retention benefit, certainly not enough to merit our active support. And while it may be argued that maintaining dialogue allows us to influence military portrayals, l submit that we have had a discouraging track record in negotiating even minor script changes. In fact, it would appear that at least one significant agreed-upon script change was countermanded in post-production, leaving us to discover what transpired only when we viewed the completed episode on the air.
Evidently, the author of this memo (most likely Strub himself) was not a fan of the opening episodes, writing:
Below are my specific, primary concerns. I only noted one or two examples in each category, though I could easily list dozens, and probably would require only one episode.
The document goes on to outline numerous issues with NCIS starting with the overall premise, which in their eyes was that ‘civilian-attired NCIS agents are the heroes, all uniformed military characters are essentially either perpetrators, incompetents, accessories, dupes, victims or unimportant’. The memo lists examples of unprofessional behaviour, including conversations about ‘Abby’s secret tattoos’, which was apparently ‘a running gag’. Abby was played by Pauley Perrette, who left NCIS after 15 seasons alleging harassment and multiple assaults by Mark Harmon, who plays Gibbs.
Other objections concerned how ‘the characters are quirky, at best’, the prevalence of ‘sexual banter’, and a young female sailor sunbathing nude, but perhaps the most serious comments concern the CIA. In one episode the CIA is shown conducting covert satellite surveillance of a Naval station, in another the deputy director of the Agency is blackmailed by Gibbs, in yet another Gibbs confronts the director of the CIA about a rogue agent. The DOD didn’t like any of this, especially the director’s response:
‘I don’t need NCIS playing lnternal Affairs for my agency’ (a police department concept, of course, they‘ve apparently never heard of an Inspector General).
Meow. Maybe tell them about Inspectors General rather than bitching about their ignorance in private memos? Isn’t that, y’know, your whole fucking job? To inform Hollywood producers about how these things really work?
For their part the Marine Corps said that the difficulty in getting their requested script changes was:
Most troubling, especially in light of our long-standing relationship with the Navy NCIS producers.
They listed some examples of problems they had with episodes – including the one they supported – before concluding:
In each episode those in the Marine uniform either commit crimes or are in some way protected or rescued by NCIS agents in civilian attire creating an indelible perception about the uniform and all whom it represents.
The solution was to continue reviewing episodes on a case by case basis, but to stop providing courtesy support (like answers to research queries) until a script had been reviewed and provisionally approved. The memo complains:
For example, more than a dozen telephonic requests were taken, researched and responded to before the first copy of Episode #13 was received. Hours of effort had already been given to the show reuslting in an episode that was ultimately denied support being produced with our signature stamp of authenticity.
Again, isn’t providing this information your job, regardless of whether the production ends up being what you want it to be? If you’re so concerned with accuracy then surely you’d welcome the chance to correct details, even in a script that is critical of the Corps, no? If it’s not about PR and propaganda, but about making sure Hollywood gets it right, then memos like this would not exist. As another email shows, episode 13 ‘One Shot, One Kill’ was formally rejected due to being ‘replete with outdated and mistaken stereotypes’ and so providing assistance would ‘only serve to make what I feel is a bad episode somewhat better’.
These problems persisted for years. One of the last documents in the file is an email from 2008, when Kercheval sent her notes on episode 07 ‘Dog Tags’, which in her own words were ‘all encompassing to your storyline’. This included a Marine violating ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, which was still in place at the time, a confusion between drug dogs and attack dogs, and a Major who confesses to having an affair with his base commander’s wife. There was also a problem with Gibbs using the Major’s confession as leverage, which supposedly doesn’t happen. Ever.
I’m sure it does, lawyers being lawyers and cops being cops.