NCIS And All Shows Like It Need To Be Canceled

The network procedural formula is incredibly stale, and no real innovation will ever happen unless shows like NCIS and all of its spin-offs are canceled.

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

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The cast of NCIS

During the height of its popularity, watching Law & Order 24 hours a day with just a little channel surfing was possible. These days, the same can be done with many other franchises, from NCIS to CSI, FBI to 911, and even The Rookie now has a new spin-off. Network television has long been the home of procedural shows, but to stay relevant in the face of streaming (check out the 2022 Variety ratings round-up to see how bad it is), every procedural needs to be canceled.

A procedural is the blanket term for a show that follows a strict formula from episode to episode; these days, it’s usually a police or medical drama. While there can be an overarching storyline, such as NCIS and the Port-to-Port killer, CSI’s Miniature Killer, even Bones had Christopher Pelant for multiple seasons, it’s usually just a small fraction of an episode and typically only relevant during Sweeps (middle of November, when ad pricing is set) and the season finale. Most of the time, each episode has an introduction, character moments establishing a secondary plot, the bulk of solving a mystery/problem, resolution, and a final moment wrapping up the secondary plot.

The formula is incredibly successful and has resulted in the biggest shows on network television for generations. It’s comforting and relaxing to know exactly what you’re getting into with a show; for the record, there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is that the procedurals currently airing on network television have been doing so for over 10 years on average, and they need to be canceled so that something new can take their place.

NCIS, one of my favorite shows, is also one that I stopped watching after Mark Harmon left. Agent Leeroy Jethro Gibbs was the gruff glue holding the ensemble together, and with him leaving in Season 19, it would have been a fitting finale for the series. Instead, Gary Cole was added to the cast as Alden Parker, and Season 20 is airing while the rest of CBS’ line-up continues to fall apart.

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Mark Harmon as Agent Gibbs in NCIS

This tendency for networks to keep shows going well past their expiration date leads to stagnation on television, a lack of innovation, and a failure to bring in new viewers. True Lies, another undercover spy procedural, just debuted last week, and no one, from critics to the general public, enjoys the show. If instead of shamelessly ripping off one of the greatest action movies of all time, what if the network had developed a spy show more in line with Homeland, 24, or even the latter seasons of Person of Interest?

As streaming has demonstrated, shows do not all have to run for 10+ seasons, with over 20 episodes each year. Succession and Billions represent the evolved primetime drama, doing a better job of being a modern Dallas and Dynasty than those shows’ reboots did. Get in, tell a good story, and get out.

Person of Interest, the last great procedural, developed over time from a case of the week to a serialized story about different ideological factions without a clear-cut villain or hero (for network television, The Machine and Samaritan were considered nuanced). Show someone an episode of NCIS in 2023 and compare it to one from 2005, and outside of the cast changes, could they even tell the difference? In a world with Barry looking at the acting scene in LA or the Last of Us exploring a big-budget dystopian future, do we really need another show about a jaded detective that doesn’t play by the book or a new serial killer once a week?

Network television would be better served with tighter storytelling that breaks the established formula and doesn’t drag on for at least a decade. Innovation needs to happen, and until the reliance on this one type of show is broken, it never will. Studio executives are hesitant to try something different, repeatedly returning to the same well until it’s so dry that Quantum Leap is back on the air.

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Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face

Canceling NCIS: New Orleans and NCIS: Los Angeles is a good start; greenlighting NCIS: Sydney is at least a little different since it’s the first international show, but how much will it vary from the formula? There are still three FBI shows, two 911 series, two Rookies, and three Chicago shows, when what we need are more Poker Faces that play with the formula, tell a smaller story, and then end.

All procedural shows must be canceled to save network television. To remain relevant, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox need to learn from Yellowstone, Succession, Poker Face, and even more experimental shows like Reservation Dogs and Wednesday. To save the procedural, the procedural must die.