NCIS: Season Eight and NCIS LA: Season Two – Great Shows; Unequal DVD Features!

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NCIS is the highest-rated scripted series on television; NCIS: Los Angeles is a close second – but you wouldn’t know it from from the features included in their DVD sets.

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NCIS has been around for long enough that its position atop the ratings is a constant source of puzzlement to those who don’t watch it. Over its eight seasons, though, the series has built up a well realized mythology while telling [mostly] standalone episodes.

The biggest difference between NCIS and most procedurals is that, although the weekly mysteries must always be involving, just as much time is spent building the characters – individually and as a team. As a result, something that was said or done six seasons ago might play into an eighth season episode – it might even be a key element and yet, the episode will work even if you’re not a regular viewer.

In the eighth season, episodes harken back not just to the seventh season cliffhanger, but to the death of Special Agent Kate Todd [Sasha Alexander, now of Rizzolli and Isles] at the end of season two – or to the connection between NCIS Director Leon Vance [Rocky Carroll] and Special Agent Ziva David’s [Cote de Pablo] father, and head of Israel’s Mossad, Eli [Michael Nouri]

As we’ve learned about Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ [Mark Harmon] family – and his first partner at NCIS, Mike Franks [Muse Watson] – we see how ‘that boy in Baltimore’ figures into the life of Special Agent Tony DiNozzo [Michael Weatherly], and meet the woman who took the position as head of the NCIS team in Spain [which was offered to DiNozzo by previous Director Jenny Shephard].

Such is the fabric of the series that retro-fitting Director Vance’s first meeting with Eli has been allowed for and feels perfectly natural – as does a visit from a psychologist with an unexpected link to Gibbs’ team.

Of course, we can’t forget the team’s youngest and most tech savvy special agent, Timothy McGee [Sean Murray], NCIS’ oddly wise Medical Examiner, Donald ‘Ducky Mallard [David McCallum] and forensics wizard, Abby Sciuto [Pauley Perrette], who despite her manner of dress is quick to point out that she’s ‘not a goth; she’s a scientist!’

Each season finds a way to highlight aspects of the characters we might not be as familiar with, usually through the appearance by someone from their pasts [Gibbs’ dad, Ducky’s mentor, etc]. This season, that person is Special Agent E.J. Barrett [Sarah Jane Morris], the woman who got that Spanish assignment that DiNozzo turned down.

In what is the series longest arc – and season finale, Barrett’s team comes to Washington to track down the extremely intelligent – and careful – Port-to-Port Killer. Taking place over several episodes, this arc frequently puts Gibbs and Barrett at loggerheads, but they can only catch their quarry of they can find a way to work together.

The show’s mix of drama and humor remains solidly in place in season eight, but the characters are even more beautifully filled out and some of the mysteries [especially the PTPK arc] are riveting. Considering the sheer volume of the season [twenty-four eps as opposed to twenty-two for most network primetime series], the level of quality in writing, directing and performing remains well above average – and is frequently brilliant.

Bonus features include: Four Audio Commentaries [Cracked byPauley Perrette and Tony Wharmby; Enemies domestic by Rocky Carroll, Jesse Stern and Mark Horowitz; A Man Walks into a Bar by Mark Harmon, Gary Glasberg and James Whitmore Jr.; One Last Score Michael Weatherly and Mark Horowitz]; and six featurettes: ‘I Have a Question For…’ – Questions from the Fans; Technically Speaking: A Conversation with Technical Advisor Leon Carroll Jr.; Practical Magic: Turning Back Time on Director Vance; Lights! Camera! Weatherly! Michael Weatherly Directs an Episode; Grab Your Gear: A Look at Season Eight; Very Special Effects; Murder, They Wrote: The Writers Talk About NCIS.

Grade: NCIS: The Eighth Season – A-

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A

NCIS: Los Angeles: The Second Season

NCIS: Los Angeles rocketed out of the gate in its first season, quickly establishing itself as the second-highest rated scripted series on television behind its parent series, NCIS [which it followed on Tuesday nights]. The ratings held for season two, as well, as the series followed the NCIS model of taking a procedural – in this case, featuring more undercover work and intelligence gathering – and balancing the technical aspects of that procedural with developing its characters.

Composed of two field teams – Special Agents G Callan [Chris O’Donnell] and Sam Hanna [LL Cool J], and Special Agent Kensi Blye [Daniela Ruah] and LAPD Detective/Liason Marty Deeks [Eric Christian Olsen] – and a tech team – Eric Beal [Barrett Foa] and Nell Jones [Renee Felice Smith] – headed by the mysterious Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Lang [Linda Hunt], the NCIS team isn’t primarily concerned with solving mysteries. They are more concerned with ferreting out threats to national security and tracking and capturing them.

While various cases include tracking down hit squads [Black Widow]; a dead Marine with top security clearance – and a missing hand [Special Delivery]; finding a Navy officer’s daughter – who’s been buried alive [Little Angels]; a two-parter built around a murdered antiquities dealer whose book of top secret information is missing [Absolution/Deliverance]; a counterfeit computer chip operation, and the mystery of Hetty’s sudden resignation [Imposters] and dealing with it badly in the season finale[Familia], NCIS:LA managed to continue the creation of an identity separate from that of NCIS, while sticking to the basic tenets of the creators of that show: solid mysteries, careful development of characters [not too much; not too soon], and weekly doses of great action sequences.

Originally conceived to be centered on the mystery of G’s identity – and the odd couple partnership of G and Sam, the series now finds as much material to mine in Hetty. She seems to know everyone important; is owed favors by many of them and can do many things as well, or even better than her team [check out the way she takes down G on the rock wall in Overwatch]. She is intelligent, witty, sage, tough, gentle and a number of other, seemingly contradictory, things and, through the performance of Linda Hunt, is well on her way to becoming a TV legend.

Like its parent series, NCIS:LA is consistently well written, directed and performed. In season two, it firmly established itself as a quality series and set up what appears likely to be a long and entertaining run. It’s a shame that the season two DVD set doesn’t get as much respect, features-wise, as NCIS.

Features include: One [not very good] Audio Commentary [Anonymous by Daniela Ruah and Eric Christian Olsen] and five featurettes: Uncovering Season 2; Location, Location, Location; Absolution: The Table Read [one of two stellar featurettes]; There’s Something About Hetty [the other stellar featurette], and Shooting Up L.A.: The Cinematography of NCIS: Los Angeles.

Grade: NCIS: Los Angeles: The Second Season – B+

Grade: Features – B-

Final Grade: B

Overall Grade: A-