Typically, it’s pejorative to call a series formulaic. But when it’s a franchise spin-off of one of CBS’s longest-running, most beloved dramas, the question is whether it’s faithful to the big daddy, “NCIS.” The series first premiered starring Mark Harmon as man-of-few-words and dynamic-action-hero-with-a-dark-past Leroy Jethro Gibbs on Sept. 23, 2003. It’s now celebrating its 20th anniversary; does the franchise, beloved by audiences global and domestic, still have juice?
Is the latest offspring the painful dud of “NCIS: Los Angeles” or the spry Creole-flavored “NCIS: New Orleans”? With the first four episodes available for preview, the good news is that “NCIS: Sydney” is faithful to the formula, while developing its own individual vibe at the frequently awkward intersection of American and Australian culture.
What’s our Navy doing poking into our allies’ business in Sydney?As the Post-WWII slumbering superpowers are well aware, China (alongside Russia, Iran and North Korea) has emerged from its isolationist cocoon to become a dangerous expansionist enemy threatening the West. Recently, in the news, The People’s Republic has initiated territorial disputes over the South China Sea, threatening long standing maritime rights of sovereign states, such as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
For the geographically challenged like me, Sydney is a great port situated on the Tasman Sea, adjacent to the Western Pacific Ocean, due south of the South China Sea. The nation’s largest trading partner since 2007 has been China. Australia, like it or not, is also America’s foothold in the region. While the Americans are trying to hold the line on China’s incursions, Australia has great economic interests in not rocking the boat.
It’s against this fascinating geopolitical landscape that the crimes confronted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service emerge. In the first episode, “Gone Fission,” an American submariner floats up dead. The corpse rises in the run up to ceremonies for AUKUS, the trilateral security collaboration between Australia, the UK and the US to secure peace in the Indo-Pacific. It definitely puts a crimp in the pageantry of military unity. Naturally, the locals don’t want U.S. spy vessels spitting poison in their waters just beyond the iconic Sydney Opera House.
Who will investigate this grisly death from apparent nuclear poisoning? The Australian Federal Police (AFP) call dibs. But no. Enter the brazen NCIS team claiming jurisdiction. With Australian actors and producers on board this international project, we’re entering a culture clash between the relatively laid-back Aussies, who do not want to receive orders from the Yanks, and NCIS, known for playing fast and loose with the rulebooks and not particularly well with others.
Also central to the “NCIS” franchise is the development of an arresting character ensemble with a side of good-natured banter. The team’s deadly skills and human foibles collide repeatedly, providing the backbeat to the crime of the week. And yet ultimately, if the series works (and this one does), the audiences become invested in them as individuals and a team. Ongoing banter, as in “NCIS,” is the salt in the stew.
The chief American badass NCIS special agent Michelle Mackey is well-played by Olivia Swann. In her first ensemble lead — she’s best known for her 44 episodes as the damned-to-hell Astra Logue in “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” — Swann compels as a big-eyed, curly-haired, muscular combat veteran with a massive chip on her shoulder. The initially intimidating Mackey has a lot of baggage and few smiles. While on active duty, she faced Court-martial for a past mistake, and her leaden conscience explains her inability to let her guard down.
Mackey’s counterpart, and first report on the AFP team, is Sergeant Jim “JD” Dempsey. As played with a Simon Baker (“The Mentalist”) swagger-and-grin, lesser-known Australian actor Todd Lasance is a charm pill with a badge. He tries to teach his new partners the way of the locals, which has a lot to do with drinking beer and enjoying the abundant sunshine, but it’s going to be a long slog before he can inject his influence on Mackey’s serious-from-the-top-down posse.
To round out the multinational task force, add in lusty outspoken blond AFP liaison officer constable Evie Cooper (“Mystery Road: Origin” co-star Tuuli Narkle). She’s paired with — and outclasses — NCIS special agent DeShawn Jackson (Sean Sagar of Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen”), as the clueless talkative American, just a few rungs above Wilmer Valderrama’s Nick Torres in “NCIS.”
And how would the ensemble meld without its quirkier characters? Petite pixie Mavournee Hazel is AFP forensic scientist Bluebird “Blue” Gleeson. As her name suggests, she’s birdlike and startles easily. Gleeson lives from a place of fear of failure, and the uber-confident Mackey terrifies her, tech genius though she is. She’s more at home with award-winning Australian actor William McInnes’ AFP forensic pathologist Dr. Roy Penrose, a fundamentally jolly guy with a Santa/Jim Gaffigan vibe.
Early signs indicate that together, over eight episodes, the team will coalesce, from badass leader to flighty forensic scientist. The adversity they face is not all geopolitical. The plots of those episodes screened for critics also include a venomous snake used as a deadly weapon on a Navy compliance officer. Set in a country with 66 species of deadly snakes, not to mention 2,000 species of spiders, there’s a lot of potential plot lines in the land of thunder.
With feisty female characters, quality production values, non-stop action, high stakes and a high banter quotient, “NCIS: Sydney” should more than satisfy the international cult of “NCIS.” Originally slated for the Australian market, the series has breakout potential domestically in a fall season that has been light on new shows in the wake of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes.
“NCIS: Sydney” premieres Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 8 pm. ET/PT on CBS.
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