In last Saturday's Interesting Stuff post, I mentioned that Michael Weatherly, the actor who has played (very special) agent Anthony DiNozzo since NCIS began in 2003, is leaving the CBS drama when this 13th season ends in the spring.
Weatherly, in his role, brings an important spark to the program and more than some of the other characters, he has grown and changed in smart, interesting ways over those years (as any person ought to) and for these reasons, I wonder if there even is a show without him.
Be that as it may – we'll see - there is something bigger and more important about this program than just one character: how the several generations are represented and work together may be the most respectful of older people on series television without sacrificing an iota of storytelling nor making a big deal about it.
That – not making a big deal of old age (or any of the other ages represented) – is significant because when respect is the norm, it does not need to be noticed or commented upon.
Except that in life, it is not the norm so I am commenting today.
Certainly like me, many fans of the show miss Ziva David, the trained Mossad assassin played by the gorgeous Cote de Pablo. Sometimes it is hard to accept an actor so beautiful in such a deadly serious role but de Pablo convinced me and the chemistry between her and DiNozzo was a rare match on TV and in the movies, a joy to watch.
Her replacement when she left the show two-and-a-half seasons ago, Ellie Bishop played by Emily Wickersham, has not gelled with the rest of the cast nor been defined in any substantial way.
But both, at somewhere around age 30, are portrayed as smart, junior members of the team who are allowed over time to improve their skills as they gradually become more accomplished – pretty much as happens to all people at that stage of their working lives.
Sean Murray as Timothy McGee, the technology nerd of the group who is often the butt of DiNozzo's pranks, has had to struggle to earn DiNozzo's respect and in time found his footing as the years have passed. Again, not much unlike real life.
Mark Harmon as the supervisory agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs hasn't changed at all over the years. As an actor, he is often accused of being wooden and I can't disagree. But Gibbs is played as age appropriate (55? 60? 65?), and there are occasional intimations in recent years of his age, as happens to everyone, catching up with him a bit. Small, but realistic.
The only character who hasn't changed in the slightest is the forensic expert Abbie Sciuto played by Pauley Perette. She's the same 13-year-old she was in 2003; mostly I ignore her except for whatever plot points I need to catch.
Abbie is some kind of anomaly with the writers and producers who have done such an expert job growing the other roles in realistic ways.
And that brings us to the medical examiner, Dr. Donald Mallard, known as Ducky, played by David McCallum.
You might recall McCallum from half a century ago when he played Ilya Kuryakin on the TV spy drama, The Man From UNCLE.
(And if you are a weekly fan of NCIS, you might have caught the insider joke in an episode several years ago when one of the team asks Gibbs what Ducky looked like when he was young. Gibbs answers, “Like Ilya Kuryakin.”)
McCallum is 82 years old now and Ducky is played as the old man he looks like, even allowed to have some common idiosyncracies of elders, such as his propensity to tell long, involved stories from his past in lead up to whatever medical information he is reporting to Gibbs or DiNozzo or the others.
The writers can do this legitimately because Ducky is respected by all for his knowledge, skill, experience and wisdom. Even better, they have shown him over time learning a complex new skill – profiling – in his old age.
I don't mean to overlook Brian Dietzen as the assistant medical examiner Jimmy Palmer. When he first arrived at the show, he was so silly and juvenile that it was hard to believe he could have got through medical school.
But the writers and Dietzen have done a terrific job of showing his growth from childish 20-something to pushing 40 as a husband and father now, while retaining a more adult version of his inner dweeb.
In an excellent recent touch, Jimmy has taken on a bit of his mentor's penchant for long, meandering stories for which, of course, Ducky has no more patience than Gibbs does with Ducky's stories.
As it should be. As it would be in life.
Speaking of long-winded, my point is that there may be other TV shows that handle age, especially old age and its relationship with the younger characters with as much – well, character as NCIS. If so, I don't know about them.
But in the creation of NCIS, one or more developers made a choice to portray each character's age, especially the two elders, with respect and decency instead of the stereotypes and stupid jokes that almost always prevail. And they have held onto that choice throughout the years. This is not an accident.
So although I have my doubts, I hope the show can survive the departure of Tony DiNozzo. Even at 13 years and counting, NCIS stands as a beacon not only for how old people should be portrayed in movies, books and on TV, but real life too.