NCIS: The Next Generation

For 18 seasons, the television series “NCIS” kept to a certain playbook. The leader of the team was Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), former Marine sharpshooter burning with the need to bring evildoers to justice. Gibbs was a hardnosed, hardline leader with an extensive list of rules that his team was expected to learn and live by; not an untypical military dad. Yet he also admired those who went off-book in pursuit of the ultimate goal, and was known to do so on occasion himself. So despite his rigidness, he ended up with a family of mavericks made in his own image. In the beginning that family included Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), Gibbs’s second in command; Caitlin Todd (Sasha Alexander), the obligatory kickass girl warrior; Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), the prototype for the genius girl scientist now to be found on almost every procedural show; and the wise advisor to the hero, Dr. “Ducky” Mallard (David McCallum). While actors have come and gone over the years, most notably the replacement of Caitlin with Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), this basic family configuration persisted.

Part of the American mythos is the cult of the rugged individual, and Jethro Gibbs personified this myth. He could survive under any conditions. He didn’t need help, and he never let anyone get too close. If you wanted to work with him–or even be his friend–it was his way or the highway. Gibbs did not want to depend on anyone else or have them depend on him.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, educator and businessman Stephen R. Covey argues that people who really get things done are neither completely independent or dependent; rather, he says, they understand the power of “interdependence,” a term borrowed from systems theory. In a smoothly running system, every part is equally important, and all the parts work with each other in a steady and harmonious dance. There is no “my way,” but rather, “our way.”

Gibbs finally made peace with the internal demons driving him and retired to the backwoods of Alaska, free to live as he chose, unfettered by rules. This left the NCIS family without a daddy. The new team leader brought in from outside, Parker (Gary Cole), does not and has not tried to impose a similar culture on the team; instead, he brings them pastries and got everyone communicating via a new app, in direct contrast to the taciturn and tech-averse Gibbs. Ducky has stepped back as well, turning the reins over to his former assistant Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen), a young and untried doctor lacking Ducky’s gravitas.

With the loss of the elder statesmen, Gibbs and Ducky, the message was clear: time for the next generation to grow up and become leaders. They are doing so, but they are doing it differently. Tim McGee, who began his tenure with the team as a probationary agent relentless teased by DiNozzo, is a computer whiz, not a soldier. He has been finding his strength not in the hypermasculine domineering behavior modeled by Gibbs and DiNozzo, but in objectivity and reason. He also pulls on what he’s learned from being the father of twins. In a recent episode when Parker, triggered by an old trauma, ran off the rails and began treating the team harshly, McGee got in front of him and said “this is not acceptable” in a calm yet forceful tone. Parker backed off.

Jimmy Palmer, another new father who has been seasoned by the loss of his wife from COVID, as well as several rough episodes where he was attacked, abducted, or held at gunpoint, has also started to step into the role of the wise advisor who monitors the team’s emotional state and says the right thing as needed. Where Ducky would tell a long story to get a point across, Palmer makes it personal and immediate. For example, after the incident with Parker, he says to the team, “I try not to judge anyone by their worst days,” and we watch as the team takes this in and lets their anger at Parker die.

We still have the hypermasculine warrior character in Nick Torres (Wilmer Valderamma), the kickass warrior woman in Jessica Knight (Katrina Law), and the genius girl scientist in Kasie Hines (Diona Reasonover). But this team has been learning to care about each other as friends, not just teammates. They don’t just have each other’s backs, they have dinner together, and where Gibbs was notorious for never joining the team at the bar or inviting anyone to his house, Parker regularly hosts the group at his home. Gibbs’s team were all independent mavericks, but this current generation is jelling as a true family who understand the power of interdependence. Does this signal a shift in our thinking as a culture? I hope so.