Usually, after seven years, a show witnesses a decline in viewership. Lots of times it’s because viewers get bored with the show, especially when it’s procedural, and they feel they are seeing plots recycled. Or, it’s because a new show debuts that captures the viewer’s attention. Yet NCIS seems to defy this logic.

Premiering in 2003 as a backdoor pilot in the CBS series JAG, NCIS grew from 11.84 million viewers and a No. 26 rating in its first season and has grown steadily each year. It broke into the Top 10 in Season 5, going up to 15.65 million in 2007, and up to N0. 4 overall and No. 1 among dramas with 19.33 million last season.

Similarly themed shows, such as the CSI franchise, have seen a small but steady drop among a comparative time and among a similar demographic of viewers.

So, what is about NCIS that makes it so popular? Well, unlike other long-running shows, NCIS has maintained a steady group of characters, with only early lead actresses Lauren Holly and Sasha Alexander departing.

The characters that have stayed have built a steady following because the characters themselves are unique. We’ve seen the archetypes before, but the characters have enough quirks to make them distinctive.

Helping NCIS gain viewers is the fact the show is syndicated on USA, which constantly runs marathons of the series. I know of many people who didn’t get on board with the show initially but are able to catch up with it now. It also helps that NCIS doesn’t have the sort of complicated and intricate mythology of something along the lines of Lost.

Whatever the magic formula for NCIS, it works. And it’s not an easy one to duplicate.

The proof is the NCIS spinoff, NCIS: Los Angeles. Similar set-up, similar structure, and most of the same producing staff. But while the ratings for NCIS: Los Angeles have been solid, it’s more due to the timeslot than being a must-see show. The writing seems boilerplate, and the characters don’t have the depth of the NCIS characters.

Consider the matchups, with the original NCIS characters listed first.

Team leader: Gibbs (Mark Harmon) vs. Callen (Chris O’Donnell). Harmon captures the strong, silent tough guy that is Gibbs perfectly, giving the role a Gary Cooper-ish sort of quality. O’Donnell, however, is mis-cast as a master of undercover work. There’s nothing about him that suggests he can blend in with the bad guys.

No. 2 Guy: DiNozo (Michael Weatherly) vs. Hanna (LL Cool J). DiNozo is a fun character, often bringing comic relief as either a self-styled lothario or as a movie buff. There’s nothing wrong with Hanna, who brings the muscle to his team, but there’s not much that’s distinguishes him from many other similar characters on TV.

Elderly Presence: Ducky (David McCallum) vs. Hettie (Linda Hunt): Ducky provides a medical presence to the team and a sounding board whenever Gibbs has a moral quandary. He also brings a worldliness to the team. Hunt, on the other hand, despite being an Oscar winner, seems miscast as Hettie, who seemingly has done everything in her long career as an agent.

Kick-ass Chick: Ziva (Cote De Pablo) vs. Kensi (Daniela Ruah): Ziva is one of the most fun characters on TV. An Israeli agent who transferred to the team, Ziva is a deadly fighter who projects toughness, but also provides humor with her flirting with Tony and her malapropisms. Kensi, on the other hand, is tough only because the other characters tell us how tough she is. And there’s nothing much else distinctive about her.

Support: McGee (Sean Murray) vs. Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen): McGee often gets to show off his computer skills, bringing a necessary skill to the team. He also provides humor as being rather geeky, and provides the perfect foil for Tony, who teases him mercilessly. Deeks, a late addition by coming on at the end of the first season, doesn’t seem to have a role. He’s supposed to be an undercover guru, but that’s Callen’s role, and Hanna is the team’s muscle. His flirty relationship with Kensi is supposed to be humorous, but their flirting falls well short of the Tony-Ziva relationship.

Tech Geek: Abby (Pauley Perrette) vs. Eric (Barrett Foa): Abby is the heart and soul of the team, one of the most distinctive characters on TV, providing a conscience and moral support to her teammates as well as information. Eric, on the other hand, is given little to do other than provide information.

Unlike other procedural dramas like the CSIs and Law & Orders of the world, NCIS manages to keep itself fresh by creating characters that we care about and keeping them all together. The NCIS cast and crew has been rewarded with numbers that continue to grow every year.

NCIS airs Tuesdays on CBS.

4 Purple Pencils

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