TV Preview

Alphabet Troupe

CBS follows the letter of the law with NAVY NCIS, a forensic drama that combines JAG, CSI, and Mark Harmon

NAVY NCIS CBS. 8-9 PM DEBUTS SEPT. 23

The tension is thick on Air Force One. A dead Navy commander has been discovered on the President's airplane, and Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is trying to bully Secret Service agent Kate Todd (Presidio Med's Sasha Alexander) into handing over blueprints of the plane's layout to his colleague Anthony DiNozzo (Dark Angel's Michael Weatherly).

''I can't give him Air Force One's floor plans,'' Alexander protests, as she storms down the narrow hallway. ''They're top secret.''

''Come on, Agent Todd,'' he shoots back, hot on her heels. ''I saw all this in a Harrison Ford movie.''

It's not just a punchline -- it's the truth. The mock aircraft being used for the first episode of CBS' new drama Navy NCIS, in a warehouse in Valencia, Calif., is the very one from which Ford expunged a group of terrorists in the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One. Reasons Weatherly, ''It's probably more exciting to be on the Harrison Ford Air Force One than it would be to be on the George W. Bush Air Force One.''

But the fake flier isn't the only thing that seems a bit familiar on Navy NCIS. Let's see here: A group of agents investigate crime scenes while their colleagues, Dr. Donald ''Ducky'' Mallard (David McCallum) and technician Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), perform autopsies and forensic tests, respectively. (Wait -- is Marg Helgenberger lurking in the background?) Even the title -- NCIS -- is nearly an anagram of a certain top-rated CBS show. A new TV series hasn't caused this much confusion since we all thought Dick Wolf's sex-crimes spin-off was called Law & Order: SUV. Says Weatherly, ''People were thinking 'Well, what is it? Is it CSI? Or is it JAG?'''

Though some have termed Navy NCIS ''the JAG-off'' -- its characters were introduced on creator Don Bellisario's other CBS series last April when David James Elliott's Harm was suspected of murder -- the executive producer insists it stands on its own. ''It's not really a spin-off,'' he says. ''This is a totally separate show. A spin-off is when you take a character from a show and put it in another show, or when you duplicate the show in another location, like CIS: Miami.'' (CIS? Looks like we're not the only ones perplexed.)

As for those CSI comparisons, Bellisario isn't buying. ''It's not similar to CSI,'' he says. ''Everybody keeps saying that. It's only like CSI if you're dyslexic.... When you see our first episode, you will see that it is not CSI. Does it have some forensics in it? Yeah. I mean, Quincy had forensics in it. I'm not going to say that we didn't put some forensics in it because that's hot stuff. Of course we did. But that's not the drive of the show.'' Seconds Harmon: ''The style of the show will be completely different. What's going to drive an audience back to the show is the characters.''

A kind of Internal Affairs for the Navy and Marine Corps, NCIS employs 2,300 people in more than 140 locations worldwide. ''These guys are in Afghanistan, they're in Iraq, they're in Guantanamo Bay, they're everywhere you can think,'' Harmon says. ''There's not an American ship of war that goes through the Suez Canal that doesn't have an NCIS agent on board.'' Chances are, however, that you've never heard of them. ''NCIS is an underdog agency in the world of the ATF and the DEA and the FBI and all these initials that we know,'' says Weatherly, who, like the rest of the cast, spent time with real agents at California's Camp Pendleton. ''They don't walk through the airport with their NCIS jackets and everyone gets out of the way. They wear NCIS jackets and people think, Are they from a radio station?''

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