JAG and NCIS


JAG (1995-2005)
NCIS (2003-    )
Type: Spin Off
Group 31

   JAG – standing for Judge Advocate General – spun off NCIS - Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Okay, this was not a case of taking established, loved characters from an existing show and launching them into a new series. This was one of those cases where they introduce the characters for the new show as guest stars on the original show for just a couple of episodes to test them out and then spin them off. The thing is, if you do it poorly, using an episode of one show as a backdoor pilot for another show can go badly, especially if the pilot doesn't become a full series. You can end up with this episode of the original show that just sticks out like a sore thumb. The story usually focuses on these new outside characters while sidelining the leads (you know, the characters we're actually tuning in to watch) and the plot isn't always the best and usually, again, doesn't have anything to do with the original series. But the JAG episodes that served as a pilot for Navy NCIS really do a good job of, well, not sucking.

   JAG was a show centering on the military legal system. Navy: NCIS would instead focus on military police investigations; the law to JAG's order. To get NCIS going what was needed was a solid crime involving the military that would need investigating. It would also have to make sense that the case would involve the characters from JAG. They came up with a solid link: the story centered on NCIS investigating the apparent murder of a JAG officer. Now that's really all they needed to do. The writers could easily have made the victim a generic JAG officer viewers had never heard of. But they didn't do that. They did more. But we'll get back to that…

   The show opens with a boy scout troupe discovering the dead body of a pregnant JAG officer. As usual with one of these kinds of spin off pilots, the characters from the new show become the primary characters. They show up and start looking into the crime. Now since they are all new characters, in addition to getting the investigation rolling, the writers also need to establish backgrounds for these new characters quick and without being too obvious that that's what they're doing. Not a lot, just enough to give us something to grab onto. They do a pretty good job. They find nice ways to work backgrounds in and only in one case did it feel really blatant. In short order we learn that lead investigator Leroy Gibbs (Mark Harmon) witness something shocking and grisly as a young kid (maybe why he picked his career?), Agent Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) worked Baltimore Homicide and tends towards storytelling, Agent Vivian Blackadder (Robyn Lively) worked for the FBI but transferred to NCIS following her brothers death during the suicide bomb attack on the USS Cole… Each character gets some quick tag.

   Like I said, all the plot needs is an excuse to have the NCIS folks poking around the JAG neck of the woods. But the writers do better. First off they make the main suspect in the murder JAG's leading man, Commander Harmon "Harm" Rabb. Really good move. Even though the NCIS folks will be the leads in the story, putting Harm in jeopardy actually gives JAG viewers a reason to give a damn. It also turns the story into something that for reruns makes sense as being an episode of JAG. It's also really good for the story. Ask any comic book fan and they'll tell you, nothing makes for a better crossover than a story where the main characters get to butt heads. Superman and Batman being friends is good but if you can find an excuse for them to beat on each other it's even better. Putting Gibbs up against Harm gives them the chance to show that Gibbs is a strong enough character to go toe to toe with our hero.

   But still the writers go even further! They could have made Harm the lead suspect and still made the murder victim some generic JAG officer we've never heard of but that Harm had a tie to. But no! They make the victim a long running character from the show. The victim was Lt. Loren Singer, a JAG officer who was romantically linked to Harm's brother, who Harm had issues with and who when last seen was heading off pregnant with a baby that may or not be Harm's brother's. So instead of a story that's a superficial excuse for an NCIS story we get a solid NCIS story that also has deep and long lasting implications for JAG. Instead of a story that in syndication would seem irrelevant we get a story that is so important it's crazy. Not only that, when the real killer is revealed (you know it ain't harm) the killer is also a long running JAG character! And we even get to see that at least one clue to the crime was laid into a previous episode. Really good stuff.

   All of the above is really good stuff but it also creates another potential problem for the writers which they deftly handle. Harm and Gibbs in conflict makes for good TV. Unfortunately it could also end up making Gibbs looking like a bad guy and kind of a dick. Why do I want to watch a new show about a guy who wrongly accused heroic Harm of murder? Gotta make sure viewers see Gibbs as a hero. They do that in two ways. First, during Harm's trial they have Gibbs admit on the stand that he has changed his mind and thinks Harm is innocent. Right there we're allowed to like him. He isn't the guy to put Harm away, he's honest and decent enough to admit a mistake and he his testimony might actually help save Harm.

   The writers also include a second plot built to showcase Gibbs as a hero. In addition to the murder plot, the story also has a second plot about NCIS trying to stop an international terrorist threat. NCIS needs Gibbs for the job but he has to finish the JAG murder case first. That puts a ticking clock on Gibbs, which is always good. He is under pressure to close the JAG case which could also mean Hrm gets railroaded. Good stuff. The second plot in conjunction with the murder plot also deftly shows the viewers the full range of cases NCIS handles, everything from a very personal murder case up to defeating international terrorists. And it allows them to definitively paint Gibbs as a hero. Yes, he accused Harm but he also helped vindicate him. Then after that the show ends with Gibbs ferreting out the location of a terrorist, exchanging gunfire with him, shooting him to death before he can kill himself and almost getting blown to pieces in the process. The dude's smart, has integrity and on top of that is a bad ass! How do you not forgive him for almost destroying Harm?

   Gotta give it up for this one. They could have easily phoned this one in but instead went above and beyond to create a solid and complex story relevant to both JAG and NCIS. Nice one.

Other JAG Crossover Links
JAG and First Monday

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