NCIS interview: EPs on McGee’s marriage; will Ziva return in season 18?

NCIS

On Tuesday, November 17th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, NCIS season 18 is finally going to premiere on CBS! This is a season that will kick things off in a big way, by diving back into a key mystery involving Gibbs, Fornell, and a drug ring first established back in season 16. Of course, the big twist is that this storyline isn’t set within the present; rather, we’ll be diving back into a particular moment in the season 17 timeline that comes with its fair share of surprises.

So what can you expect over the course of the premiere and the remainder of the season? To help shine a light on some of this, we’re happy to present our latest interview with NCIS showrunners Steven D. Binder and Frank Cardea. Here we got some news on Sloane’s exit, whether or not Ziva could come back this season, and also some specific episodes and storylines to anticipate.

CarterMatt – I know that there were some episodes that you were ready to film last spring, but weren’t able to when filming shut down. Was this premiere, ‘Sturgeon Season,’ set to be one of those final episodes that didn’t get to film?

Steven D. Binder – Not at all. When we left in the spring, we realized that we would have to write a new premiere and ease back into whatever the world was. As we started thinking about the great unknowns and the idea of characters living in a coronavirus world, we toyed with the idea of an alternate reality where the virus doesn’t exist. We abandoned that.

What we ended up settling on, and you’ll know immediately when you watch the premiere, is that it will open in a coronavirus world — though coronavirus isn’t important to what is being talked about. Then, we jump back in time to the episode ‘Musical Chairs,’ where Gibbs lied in the squad room about going sturgeon fishing and was gone the whole episode. We splice off in this episode and we see what Gibbs was doing related to Emily Fornell.

We spend a good portion of the beginning of the season in a pre-pandemic timeframe, which enabled us to get a better handle on what the future was going to look like. That way, when we land in the present-day time, we have a sense of what it is going to be.

Frank Cardea – The first five episodes take place in the period of [‘Musical Chairs’]. Episode 6 wraps that up, and episode 7 will bring us up to a post-COVID world.

I am really glad to be seeing Fornell again in the premiere, given that the season 16 finale ‘Daughters’ was so important for him and for Gibbs. How does this ‘Sturgeon Season’ story affect Gibbs? It’s weird to think about, given that whatever happened in that past, he’s been keeping a secret from everyone in the present.

Binder – And that’s going to have to come to an end at some point…

Cardea – It affects him greatly. It develops over the first five episodes and even beyond that — through six, seven, eight, and nine. It will still be affecting his life. We’re going to see a slightly different Gibbs as a result of what he went through.

The news is out there that Maria Bello is leaving at some point this season, but how long can we expect to see her stick around? Will all of her episodes be at once, or sort of spread out throughout the year?

Binder – She’s a part of the team, and we’re going to delve in to some specific things for her.

Cardea – She’s doing eight episodes, and it will be wrapped up in the beginning part of the year.

You guys have managed to get back Fornell, and guest stars I know in some ways are more challenging in this pandemic climate. Have you faced any limitations because of that?

Cardea – We have a very rigorous COVID protocol, but we haven’t let it impact our storytelling. Joe Spano, who plays Fornell, has always been an integral part of the show. He went through the same testing protocol as all of our stars and guest stars. We haven’t shied away from bringing in new people because of COVID; we’ve just put them through our rigorous testing program.

Binder – Maybe there’s a few less in the background. Do we really need 20 people in the background? Can we do it with 9?

Cardea – Crowd scenes are pretty hard to shoot nowadays, because everyone who comes into contact with our cast and crew has to be tested.

I know there will be a lot of people wondering, but is there any specific plan to bring Ziva back after the arc last season?

Binder – That was always a story-driven appearance; it was never a “we got Ziva, let’s throw story at her.” I’d just say that now, we’ve got a lot of other fish to fry before we go back and even think about another story at this time. We’ve got a fairly complex narrative structure, we’ve got Sloane and making sure that she gets a send-off that is fitting and surprising and exciting, and we’ve got the coronavirus. To throw Ziva on top of all of it would be like throwing a hat on top of a hat.

Cardea – We also have a compressed season this year. CBS is cutting back on their episode orders because we got such a late start. We’re doing a third fewer episodes than we normally would in a non-COVID year.

That dovetails perfectly into what I wanted to ask next. With fewer episodes, will there be a change at all in format? Is it possible that the story may feel a little more continuous, even if it’s not necessarily serialized?

Binder – We had some plans in play that are going to be compressed because of the fewer episodes. I don’t know when it’s all said and done if there will be a different ratio between serialized and non-serialized episodes.

Cardea – It will stay pretty similar to what we’ve done in the past. It just means that there are some things we wanted to do that will have to wait until future years.

Binder – Even these first five episodes where there is this long-term thing happening, we’ve tried to also design it where it’s also its own non-serialized episode, where you can just tune in and watch that episode. You don’t really have to see anything before or after it. If we feel a “Previously On…” will help, we may throw that in. The one exception is the wrap-up episode. It will be helpful if you’ve seen all the things leading up to that episode, but it’s one episode out of the first seven. You could have just tuned in and watched the other shows without knowing anything else. It’s still the same lovable characters, solving crimes.

I want to make sure we talk about the 400th episode, which is going to be about tracing through Gibbs and Ducky’s past. What was the feeling like exploring this relationship, especially since I have to imagine this idea had been rolling in your head for years?

Binder – I don’t know that the specific idea of the 400th was rolling around, but when I sat down to do the 400th, I asked ‘what was deserving enough? What was epic enough?’. It was how these people became these people. We’ve seen so much before that — we’ve seen Young Gibbs before he joined the Marines, and Young Ducky when he was a doctor before he went to Afghanistan. This was sort of the missing link between then and now, and I thought it’d be interesting — that final link. 400 seemed like a good time to do it.

I’ve seen on Sean Murray’s Instagram an image of he and Margo Harshman on set. I’m assuming with that we’ll be seeing Delilah back early on. Is there anything you can say about that?

Cardea – One of the first five episodes Margo will be featured really prominently in. It was good to have the Delilah character back with McGee. There are different layers to explore.

Binder – We haven’t really dug into it too much. Everyone’s relationships are generally pretty happy, but at some point every marriage has a rough patch. We dip our toe into that water a little bit.

Finally, I believe Wilmer Valderrama has said we could hear a little bit about Torres’ past and maybe his family. What can we expect to see there?

Binder – We do bring up some family — we do mention a sister, who I don’t think we’ve mentioned since he started on the show. I think he’s going to have a personal experience with someone who’s served some time — he’s always putting people away, and he never really thinks about the other side of the coin. I think there’s a good chance we’ll see something along those lines [of family]; nothing has been written yet.

Cardea – With most of the regulars, we get a good idea as to where they live and how they live. We’re going to get a sense of his home life a little bit.