NCIS franchise making big changes in response to the COVID pandemic

NCIS spoilers follow, but they’re pretty minor.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many American TV shows to end seasons prematurely, and the NCIS franchise was no exception. Filming for the new seasons was allowed to begin in September, with stringent health and safety precautions – but in doing so, the producers faced a rather unusual problem: do you show your characters dealing with the pandemic, or do you try to carry on as normal?

All three NCIS shows return this month, and each has taken a different route. One ignores the pandemic by jumping back in time; another acknowledges it, but suggests it’s behind us; and one embraces it, throwing its characters into the height of the sickness and death.

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The parent show has taken the first approach. When it returns on November 17, NCIS will slip a year, back to the autumn of 2019:

“We had an episode last year called ‘Musical Chairs,’ where [Mark Harmon’s] Gibbs disappears from the squad room to go on a mission, and then he shows up at the end of the episode with a black eye,” co-showrunner Steven Binder explained to TVLine. “We are going to pick up Season 18 with that mission that Gibbs was on, back in time.”

This approach helps fill in a gap that fans had found odd – why didn’t Gibbs help his friend Fornell go after the drug runners who hurt Fornell’s daughter? In fact, as we’ll learn, he did. “He’s causing all sorts of chaos in communities with the drug situation,” Binder notes.

The time jump also allows the 400th episode of the show to explore another gap in NCIS history – how did Gibbs and Dr Ducky Mallard [David McCallum] meet in the first place? The second episode of season 18 shows how that happened “under strange circumstances”.

NCIS: Los Angeles has gone the opposite way. “We’re playing it post-COVID,” their showrunner R Scott Gemmill told TVLine. “We’re playing it pretty much as if [COVID] is in the past, because it was just too difficult to portray it as it is if our guys aren’t wearing masks. We’re playing it as if we’re on the other side of this, but it’s certainly fresh in the minds of everyone.”

“We had to make a decision one way or the other,” Gemmill continued. “And my feeling has always been that our show is sort of an hour of escapism. People want to see life the way they wish it was.”

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That doesn’t mean that the pandemic hasn’t impacted the show. They’re not saying exactly how far in the future they’ve gone – “I tend not to ever want to put an actual time on that because the minute we do, that’s when I get into so much trouble,” Gemmill joked – but it’s at a point where Los Angeles police reforms are coming in.

That’s going to affect Eric Christian Olsen’s character, Marty Deeks. “We’re going to find out that because of all the police reform, Deeks’ job with the LAPD, his liaison position, may be in jeopardy, and that’s going to affect his work with us,” Gemmill explained.

Trying to make it seem as if the world is back to normal has caused issues for production. “A lot of the agents will be working somewhat solo when they can, and that’s just to afford us the safety procedures that we’re trying to implement in order to keep everyone healthy,” Gemmill says. And that’s another reason why we won’t see as much of Linda Hunt’s Hetty as might have originally been the case. “We have found a way to do at least the first episode, which involved actually going and shooting at Linda’s house in her driveway.”

Going across country to NCIS: New Orleans, star and executive producer Scott Bakula explains why they’ve chosen to depict the epidemic in full flow: “Since New Orleans is such a big character in our show, so to skip it or ignore it wouldn’t be fair to the city or to all the characters in our show,” he told The Talk (via ET Canada). “It’s intense. It’s very emotional, but there’s also something kind of cathartic about it.”

The opening episode features real news footage of the pandemic’s devastating effect on New Orleans, and a lot of the pressure falls on CCH Pounder’s character, Dr Loretta Wade.

COVID “affected New Orleans a great deal and it was one of the cities at one point that had very high numbers and they were rapidly increasing,” she told the Los Angeles CBS Local.

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“A huge part of this city is tourism. Bourbon Street was closed down and the French Quarter was closed down and people were getting very anxious about when they would go back to work. We are focusing on the anxiety of our city and how COVID-19 is affecting each and every one of us. Particularly, Wade who has the most dead bodies around her as a normal thing and now she is impacted by a wave of death.”

Whether all three shows will catch up to the same timeframe later this season – which will be shorter than usual – will depend, we suspect, on what happens in the US in the coming months…

NCIS: Los Angeles airs on CBS in the US and Sky One in the UK.