Following an invite from CBS to visit the set of their TV show NCIS, I set out this sunny Californian morning to Santa Clarita, where the show is shot.
Nestled in an industrial street, the set is a compound of several nondescript buildings and a fictitious neighbourhood. Arriving there, I was met by the CBS people who led me inside the main stage building, where a replica of the NCIS Washington DC headquarters has been constructed.
The United States Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is the counter-intelligence, counter terrorism and law enforcement agency of the US Navy. Based in Washington DC, it employs 2500 agents, who are stationed in the US and around the world.
After having a healthy lunch of fish, chicken and cooked vegetables with the fictitious NCIS Special Agents, the show’s cast, I joined the real NCIS Special Agents, the show’s technical advisors, on a tour around the block, where they demonstrated their methods of investigating crimes and catching criminals and terrorists.
Donning NCIS uniforms, their hands gloved, the agents walked through a staged crime scene, where a navy officer had been stabbed to death at a cafÃ© while having lunch with a date, whom he had met over the internet.
Their work is remarkably meticulous. Every little detail, however seemingly insignificant and innocuous, is examined and collected for further testing in the lab. Shining a small torch at a steep angle, the agents unveiled an abundance of details invisible to the naked eye, and using sophisticated cameras they constructed a 3D image of the crime scene on their computer, enabling further digital examination.
Obviously, a proper execution of this job demands ample time, the concentration of a meditating maharajah, the acuity of an eagle’s eyes and the
patience of an elephant. The agents revealed that it takes at least 48 hours to complete the examination of this particular case. Mind you, we were done in 30 minutes!
Having collected the evidence, we headed into the investigation room, where a lie detector, polygraph, was awaiting the hapless suspect. The agent was quick to correct the old fallacy about lie detecting “We don’t call it lie detecting; we call it assessment credibility,” he stressed.
Regardless of how they call it, Polygraph is used extensively by the NCIS. The Special Agent revealed that he had flown to countries around the world to assess the credibility of suspected criminals and terrorists.
The Special Agents insisted that no one could cheat the polygraph, because it reads physiological variables such as perspiration, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, which can’t be controlled by the subject. And if the polygraph technician suspects the subject was attempting to cheat the results with physical movement, he would immediately stop the test.
Having assessed the credibility of the imaginative suspect, the Special Agents proceeded into the shady halls of the NCIS set, which is fitted with labs, giant monitors and communication equipment connecting agents in different spots around the world and even a wall plastered with the images of the most wanted men, like Bin Laden and his henchmen.
After this lengthy demonstration I was nearly convinced that with such sophisticated techniques and elaborate lab testing, committing a crime without subsequently being caught is virtually impossible. But later actor David McCallum, who plays the Medical Examiner in the show, offered a handy piece of advice for committing the perfect crime: “Get a bunch of hungry dogs and feed them your victim,” he said earnestly.
David McCallum’s words of wisdom shouldn’t be taken lightly, because he knows what he’s talking about. He regularly pays visits to the LA Coroner’s office, where he observes autopsies and picks up the techniques of unravelling mysterious crimes. “I learn something every time I go there,” he said in awe.
Unlike McCallum and Sean Murray, who had spent some time at the NCIS labs, the rest of the cast has not visited NCIS facilities. Instead they rely on the NCIS agents who are invariably available on set to advise them on the technical aspects of their job.
“Once I stood in front of a suspect’s door as I knocked on it, and the agent shouted âHey, you will be killed doing that,’ and I moved aside,” Michael Weatherly explained laughing.
Evidently, the technical advisors are doing a good job, because the real NCIS agents are chuffed about the show, describing it as an authentic representation and a true reflection of the NCIS reality.
“I have portrayed lawyers and doctors in the past, but they always complained that my portrayals didn’t reflect reality, but NCIS agents always commend our work,” Rocky Carroll, who plays the NCIS Director Leon Vance, marvelled.
“They like us because we brought them into the consciousness of the people,” Mark Harmon (Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs) chimes in.
Indeed no one had heard of the shadowy organisation before the show began airing in 2003, consistently attracting millions of viewers over the past 8 years. It has become one of the most popular TV shows in America, beating even reality shows. Its popularity has also spilled oversees.
The NCIS show follows a fictional team of special agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which conducts criminal investigations involving the US Navy and Marine Corps.
Meeting the show’s cast members, I couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance they bear to the fictional characters they inhabit: Solemn Mark Harmon, sarcastic Michael Weatherly (Special Agent Anthony “Tony” Di Nozzo), ebullient Cote de Pablo (Special Agent Ziva David), sweet Pauley Perrette (Special Agent Abigail “Abby” Sciuto), geeky Sean Murray (Special Agent Timothy McGee) and earnest Rocky Carroll.
“We are so involved with our characters that we infuse them with our own personalities,” David enthused.
“I so in love with my character, Sciuto,” tattooed Pauley added. In fact, the gothic actress is so in love in her character she doesn’t mind missing out on playing other characters in other projects.
The truth is that the gruelling schedule of these guys makes it unfeasible to work on other projects. They work so hard, none of them ever had the chance to enjoy a nap in his or her trailer’s comfy bed. Instead of running off to their trailers to steal a break, they sit down with the writers, who are invariably present on set, discussing the scenes. Sometimes, they’ve had to work 20 hours a day.
“I arrive on set at 6.30 am and I leave at 8.30 pm, which means I gotta wake up at 4 am to get here,” Mark Harmon, who has been working on the show for 8 years and is also an executive producer, said.
In spite of the demanding nature of the job, everybody relishes it and does it with love.
“It’s a teamwork,” Mark Harman said. “We all work hard and together. While the lighting guys are fixing the lights, the actors are discussing the scene with the writers. There is no downtime.”
Evidently, the hard work of the NCIS teams, the real and the fictitious, has paid off. Unlike many other shows that lose momentum and die out after 4 or 5 seasons, NCIS’s popularity is unabated and still growing, prompting CBS recently to extend it for two more seasons.